Home > Politics, Sports > On Joe Paterno’s Statue and White-Washing History

On Joe Paterno’s Statue and White-Washing History

As you probably know, Penn State has decided to remove the statue of Joe Paterno in the wake of the results of the investigation into his role in the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. It had been concluded by former FBI director Louis Freeh that Paterno “could have stopped the abuse if he so wished,” and concealed information and may have talked administrators out of reporting a 2001 incident. Obviously, I am not here to defend Joe Paterno’s negligence in this case. More than enough has been written about the trial, the abuse, the football program, and the legacy of Joe Paterno, and I don’t feel the need to add to the chorus of outrage, though I feel it. I do, however, want to address the removal of the statue: specifically, that I think it is a mistake.

I could easily write about the great things Joe Paterno did to merit having a statue erected. I could argue that even horrible deeds cannot and do not undo his career. I could argue that Paterno had a reputation for doing things the right way at least in large part because he did so for most of his 60 years at Penn State. The merits or opinions of such arguments could be debated all day, and most seem likely to be trumped by “but he didn’t stop a child molester.”

But the removal of the statue is part of a larger trend to remove from history that which we find unpleasant or disagreeable. Like it or not, Joe Paterno is a major part of Penn State’s history, and I strongly doubt that he is the only memorialized figure who has later been discovered to have some nasty skeletons in his closet. We didn’t take down memorials to Thomas Jefferson when it was learned that he had an affair and second family with one of his slaves. Richard Nixon still has a presidential library. Numerous early settlers are thought to be heroes despite their slaughtering of native populations.

We still learn about these men in history books. We still can visit memorials to the men–to their good and to their bad. A statue of Joe Paterno is not an approval of his life and his deeds, but an acknowledgement of his significant role in the history of the university–and not just their football program. Penn State is looking to erase this stain from their history, as is the NCAA by vacating wins from 1998 on, in essence pretending those games didn’t really happen and weren’t really played.

To me, the statue would stand as a memorial toward caution: caution about idolizing public figures; caution about ceding too much power to a football coach; maybe even caution about enshrining the career of a man before his career has been completed. But regardless of what it stands for to those who choose to visit or view it, it stands for an accurate representation of history; a history that cannot be unwritten or re-written simply because facts have emerged that we wish weren’t true.

  1. July 24, 2012 at 2:08 pm

    Wow. I don’t think I could agree with you more. I knew the removal of the statue was rubbing me the wrong way – even though I believe (unpopularly) that football can become a seriously destructive culture on a campus and elsewhere – but I couldn’t figure out why. Yep, this is why.

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