The recently released report from independent investigator Louis Freeh was an important moment in the unfolding of the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky scandal. Freeh’s investigation revealed a culture of deference to Penn State’s late, and legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno. According to Freeh, Paterno participated in a cover-up of the allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who was recently convicted of 45 charges of child abuse, endangerment, and other related offenses.
At a minimum, Paterno was aware that Sandusky had committed such egregious actions, and chose not to report them to local police. At a maximum, he willfully participated in an effort to conceal Sandusky’s actions, without regard for the well-being of the boys involved.
One subject of discussion that immediately emerged from these revelations was the question of whether Penn State should remove the prominent statue of Joe Paterno that is located outside of the stadium where Penn State plays football. The question about the statue was obvious: in light of these allegations, should it be removed?
It is easy to let one’s emotions take control here. Those with a close connection to Penn State will probably demand that the statue remain. Such is the deity-like status of Paterno in and around State College, PA. Those with no such connection will probably think just the opposite, that no college should honor in effigy a man who seemingly cared more about preserving the Penn State football brand than protecting children from a dangerous predator. But what are the arguments for and against removing the statue, and what conclusion do they ultimately support?
Argument #1-We Ought Not Honor Criminals
One might argue for removing the statue on the grounds that had Paterno lived, he would likely have been found guilty of felony criminal negligence, or some other egregious crime. One might then appeal to a principle which says that we ought not honor criminals with statues, so we ought not allow a statue of Paterno to remain at Penn State. This is a plausible principle, and a strong case for immediately removing the statue.
Argument #2-The Statue is for Achievement on the Field
Those who are opposed to the removal of the statue might argue that Paterno was so memorialized for his achievements on the football field, and not for being a particularly good man. Paterno led Penn State to a national title, and he is currently the winningest football coach in NCAA history. We might appeal to a principle which says that if someone is memorialized on the basis of certain achievements, that memorial can be removed only if those achievements are undermined. Since the Freeh report, while scandalous, has nothing to do with football, the statue should remain. Paterno, one might argue, is being honored as a great coach, not a great human being.
Argument #3-Change the Meaning of the Statue
There is another argument regarding what to do about the Paterno statue that, I think, captures something important about both sides of the debate. It cannot be denied that the primary basis for erecting a statue of Paterno was his achievement on the football field. Although Paterno is also lauded for his efforts to build the Penn State academic brand, primarily by donating money to build a massive library on campus, he is first and foremost revered as a great coach.
However, it equally cannot be denied that his likely criminal involvement in the Sandusky case puts a serious black mark on his resume, such that it cannot simply be ignored. The simple solution, I think, is to keep the statue, but modify its meaning so that it better represents the facts about who Paterno was.
There are several ways that the meaning of this statue might be changed. First, one might simply erect a plaque explaining why the statue was erected, and publicly denouncing Paterno’s involvement in the Sandusky case. This would serve as a way to honor Paterno’s positive achievements, while also decrying his greatest failure. It is also a solution that opponents of keeping the statue are unlikely to find adequate.
More controversially, but perhaps more fittingly, one might modify the statue itself, to indicate that despite his illustrious status, Paterno turned a blind eye when it most mattered, and failed to be a leader in the most difficult of times. Perhaps the best way to represent Joe Paterno is by placing a blindfold on the statue in front of Penn State stadium, to remind the Penn State community that this man they so revered was simply not the great leader they took him to be.
In the face of horrific tragedy, Paterno cared only about Penn State football. How better to communicate this message than a blindfolded Paterno?
About the Author
Elijah Weber is a graduate student at Bowling Green State University. He holds a Master's degree in philosophy from Colorado State University, and Bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy from Chapman University. He currently lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with his wife Laura, his son Brandon, and two cats.