Over the weekend, after all the sordid details had come out on Penn State, after the Freeh report had been released, and as new information emerged that continued to paint an unflattering picture of the person that was Joe Paterno, my friend Matt (Yes, this Matt. What can I say, he’s an inquisitive guy) asked me a simple question on the whole situation.
That question: Should the statue of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium come down?
Admittedly, it was something I’d never taken much time to consider, and something I never thought I would. After all, we now know the gruesome, sordid and disgusting details on what happened at Penn State, and Paterno’s involvement in all of it. It’s out there. The whole world knows it. You don’t need me to tell you any more about it.
So at the end of the day, why did it matter what the school decided to do with a big chunk of copper in the middle of campus? If they wanted to knock it down, great. If they chose to let it stand, whatever. Ultimately, who really cared?
Except that’s where I was wrong: People do care, and the debate over the future of the statue has become the latest hot-button issue in the never-ending saga at Penn State. It started over the weekend when rumors surfaced that the school was planning to keep the statue, before Penn State then announced that a final decision had yet to be made. Still, decision or not, it hasn’t stopped folks from expressing their (strong) opinions on the subject.
But while the debate rages on, I have come to my own decision on what the future of the statue should be. And the more I think about it and I take all the facts into account, the more I firmly believe this: The statue should stay.
Now before we go any further, I already know what you’re thinking. It’s something to the effect of, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, the statue should… stay? Where did that come from? From the beginning you’ve been hard on Penn State Aaron, and hard on all those involved. Just last week you came down on everyone in Happy Valley from Paterno, to the President of the school and even the police force. How could you possibly want the statue to stay? Are you doing that Skip Bayless thing and taking the opposite side of the argument just to piss everyone off?”
First of all, don’t ever compare me to Skip Bayless. And secondly, I’m not. Let me explain.
The truth is, I’ve already made my stance on Paterno clear, and I’m guessing that stance is pretty much the same as yours. To put it bluntly, Joe Paterno was a lying, manipulative crook, who had too much power, too much autonomy and too much control over everything that happened at Penn State; not just in the football program, but at the university as a whole. Now that doesn’t mean he’s the only person guilty of covering for Sandusky, but it also doesn’t change the fact that Paterno had a chance to stop malicious crimes from happening, and instead helped cover them up. Joe Paterno was a criminal- yes, a criminal- and if he were alive today would deserve everything the American judicial system threw his way.
Those are my opinions yes, but they’ve also been proven with fact. And whether you feel as strongly as I do on Paterno or not, I do believe we can all agree on one thing: At the very least, Paterno wasn’t the morally righteous person he made himself out to be over all these years. Above all, Joe Paterno just wasn’t a very good guy.
The problem is, “being a good guy” has little to do with the subject we’re talking about today, and the subject we’re talking about today is statues. Statues aren’t built for good guys; they’re built for iconic figures. Especially in the world of college football.
Look across the college football landscape, and you won’t find a single guy whose statue was built for his good deeds. For all I know Bear Bryant might’ve been a nice guy; but that monument in front of Bryant-Denny Stadium has nothing to do with that. It has everything to do with the 232 wins and six National Championships the man had at the school. Barry Switzer has a statue outside Memorial Stadium, and he’ll be the first to admit that he wasn’t a very good guy (he was "The Bootlegger's Son", after all). Switzer sure did win a lot of football games though. And even though Tim Tebow (who, as best we know is pretty much the nicest guy ever) had a statue put up in his name, it wasn’t because of any prayers he led or lives he changed. Tebow’s statue outside the Swamp is strictly in place for the two National Championships and a Heisman Trophy he won. Nothing more and nothing less.
Again, statues are built for icons, and no matter how you feel about Paterno, the guy was an icon in the sport of college football. I won’t waste anyone’s time with Paterno’s credentials (since we all know them), but just know that the statue we’re discussing today is there solely because of what happened between the white lines, and nothing that happened outside them.
As a matter of fact, in a lot of ways, this circumstance actually reminds me a lot of what has happened with Pete Rose and the Baseball Hall of Fame. While I’m by no means comparing Rose’s crimes to the crimes at Penn State, what I am comparing are the contexts surrounding each. And that context (as you’ve probably guessed) is quite simple: Honoring a man for what he accomplished on the field can- and in these two cases- should remain independent of what happened off of it.
Now, was Pete Rose’s decision to bet on baseball wrong? Of course it was. Was he a bad guy? Speak with many who knew him in his younger days, and the answer is yes. But is the fact that he spent more time chatting on the phone with his bookie than a teenage girl does with her first boyfriend relevant here? The answer is absolutely not, at least in regards to his Baseball Hall of Fame candidacy. The Baseball Hall of Fame is a place to honor the game’s greatest players, in the same way a statue is designed to honor a great college football coach. And in the same way Rose is one of the best players to ever play his sport, Paterno is one of the best to ever coach his. Banning Rose from the Hall or taking down Paterno's statue doesn't change either fact.
And above all, that’s why the statue should stay: Taking it down wouldn’t actually change anything in regards to Paterno’s career, or the legacy he left behind. Taking down the statue wouldn’t change anything in the record books. It wouldn’t take away any of his 409 wins as a head football coach. It wouldn’t take away his two National Championships either.
It also wouldn’t change the fact that for the last 45 years, Joe Paterno was as much a part of Penn State as Penn State was a part of him. It wouldn’t change the fact that the two are forever intertwined and that no one (except maybe alums) will ever be able to think about Penn State without also thinking about Joe Paterno too. Taking down a statue will never wipe away the memories- both good and bad- of all that happened at the school while Paterno was there.
So as best I can tell, the decision on what to do with Joe Paterno’s statue, isn’t really a decision at all.
Taking it down won’t change anything that Penn State could’ve controlled in the past and didn’t. It also won’t change how they choose to handle things in the future.
And the future is bright in Happy Valley.
For the first time in a long time, the fate of Penn State actually belongs to the Penn State.
Not the guy whose face is on the statue.
If there’s ever been a reason for the school to celebrate, it’s that right there.
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