If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past year, you likely understand the myriad meanings of the name “Jerry Sandusky.” If you have been under a rock, here is the short version. Sandusky, a former assistant coach at Penn State University set up a charity for at-risk kids and used Penn State property to run his charity camp–what would become a virtual pipeline for prospective victims. Recently, Sandusky was convicted on over forty counts of child sexual abuse–including child rape–perpetrated over roughly fifteen years.
Penn State University conducted their own investigation with ex-FBI director Louis Freeh. According to his report, university officials, including beloved head coach Joe Paterno, former Penn State president Graham Spanier, VP Gary Schultz, and AD Tim Curley, knowingly and purposefully concealed Sandusky’s crimes from authorities in order to save face for their football program. In other words, Paterno and Co.’s resistance to reporting Sandusky allowed him to prey on young boys for a decade or so.
Everyone can agree that Jerry Sandusky’s actions were those of an unabashedly evil man. The presumed grey area arises when considering the actions of university officials, including Joe Paterno. After the shocking details of the Freeh report, there was a public outcry to remove Paterno’s statue from in front of Beaver Stadium.
For those of you who aren’t rabid college football fans like us, here’s the background: Paterno coached Penn State for over forty years. This man was considered a living legend (or, in some people’s estimation, a living saint). He was praised for his leadership of young men on and off the football field. Paterno and his family donated a large sum to the university for a library which was consequently named after him. The Big Ten Football Championship Trophy, among other distinguished college football awards, bore his name.
In 2001, Penn State installed a large bronze statue of Paterno in front of their stadium, which portrayed paterno, pointing to the sky, and leading a group of players, presumably onto the field. A nearby wall reads, “Joseph Vincent Paterno: Educator, Coach, Humanitarian.”
Amidst the Penn State scandal, there have been repeated calls for removal of the statue, which, under the direction of President Rodney Erickson, took place this morning. This, however, only happened after groups had been camped out to “protect” the statue from vandals late last week.
Kind of ironic, isn’t it? Yes, it was really a statue that needed protecting in this whole affair.
Joe Paterno was a great football coach. I think Penn State’s record speaks for itself. Joe Paterno, however, was not a saint. He was, as is now obvious, a conflicted man who, it seems, wanted to do well by his school, whether that meant donating money to the library or protecting his football program from a sex abuse scandal that will, ultimately, likely destroy it precisely because of his cover up.
The issue here is not Paterno’s legacy as a coach, but his actions as a man that were judged before he was done living.
We do this a lot now. It’s not just Joe Paterno or the college football world who decided to “call the game” at halftime and canonize Paterno as some sort of living saint. It is, admittedly, difficult to judge a body of work when you don’t have the entire body of work in front of you. This is why we should perhaps wait to praise living men as if there were something more than men. We are looking for living heroes. We are a society grasping for something real, someone to look up to, and when we think we find them, we treat them as superhuman. We feel as if we need a real life Batman, Superman, Spiderman. We are too quick to elevate men to the status of gods before they have a chance to show us that they deserve it.
To make another football comparison, take the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In order to be inducted, there is a five-year waiting period from the time a coach or player retires from the game. This is not even waived if a prospective inductee dies during the waiting period. This is one thing the Hall of Fame does right, amidst much criticism. It’s hard to judge someone’s body of work as a coach or a player when you’re too close to it; it’s called bias. It’s human and normal, but it does cause us to overlook shortcomings that might otherwise be a call for concern on some level. Often it’s small, but imagine if the college football world had stuck to a five year waiting period after Paterno’s retirement before building what amounts to a shrine to the man outside his home turf.
Imagine the absence of the absurd fiasco of seemingly-heartless Penn State students and others who took to the streets after Paterno was fired for his complicity in Sandusky’s years of abuse.
Imagine that changing the names of multiple awards for excellent in college football was not necessary.
Imagine the absence of Penn State students and fans “protecting” the statue of a man who failed to protect innocent children because he put the reputation of his football program before their safety.
We are too eager to live history in the present. We want to memorialize, categorize, archive, and canonize people and things before they have a chance to pass out of the now and into the then. It’s hard to judge history as it happens; maybe we should withhold public praise of individual historical actors before we have a chance to see what they’ve done as a whole.
We don’t call the winner at halftime of a football game. We shouldn’t have called Paterno a saint before we had a comprehensive view of his life. What we can say about Paterno is that he was a good coach. He did some good things for PSU. He was also a conflicted and imperfect man who made a heinous mistake, a morally-reprehensible decision. We should not white wash history by acting as if what Joe Paterno did or failed to do doesn’t matter. Leave him in the record books. Leave his name on the library. Let these be a testament to his achievements. But don’t continue to venerate the man as some sort of saint; maintaining a statute that calls him a “humanitarian” when he failed so egregiously by some of our society’s most innocent, our children, is a gross fallacy. And it is painfully obvious, judging by the statue’s group of “protectors,” that leaving the statue in place would only facilitate this white-washing.
Penn State and college football in general need to remember this gross and tragic failure to stand up for what is right. The NCAA appears to agree, and will announce Penn State’s sanctions at 9 AM Eastern tomorrow–sanctions that are expected to include a multi-year scholarship reduction, a multi-year bowl ban, and an unprecedented $30-60 million fine to be put “toward an endowment for children’s causes.” We need to remember that football is a game, and there are more important things than winning or losing. It’s not how you play the game; it’s how you live your life. Joe Paterno’s statue should be replaced with a permanent reminder of Sandusky’s victims. It doesn’t have to be a statue of a child. It just has to be a symbol that reminds us all that football is a game, but life is not, and it’s the decisions we make off the field that will come to define our legacy.
This post was co-written by a couple of college football fanatics: Kate and her boyfriend, Jon.