Dienhart: Now is not the time for a Paterno statue

When I first saw reports of a private plan for a Joe Paterno statue in downtown State College, Pa., I instantly thought of the cult of personality. Make no mistake about it: The power of Penn State’s former football coach remains large, engulfing a school, a city, a state and a region, if not the entire country. That’s what happens when you’re head coach of a program for 45 years and win more than 400 games along with two national championships.

The JoePa legend grows warmer, fuzzier and bigger with all of the good deeds performed over the years. His family’s generous donations to the Penn State library are renowned. And Paterno was gracious with his time when it came to charitable endeavors or just helping people, friends or strangers.

Paterno was a father figure.

Paterno was a great coach.

Paterno was seen as being god-like.

And that was the problem.

Is it really appropriate to commission a statue of a person who was a central figure in the most heinous scandal in college athletics history? All of the horrors of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal are still fresh and they will remain for years. The stain of this will never completely go away. And Paterno is forever linked to the atrocities whether the most ardent JoePa sycophants want to believe it or not. But how can all of those wins, championships and donations trump that?

The Freeh Report painted an image of Paterno that stood in such stark contrast to the larger-than-life Norman Rockwell portrait America had grown to love, admire and worship. And many refused to believe the report and instead chose to attack its legitimacy.

However, this excerpt from the report sums up things painfully well: “The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims,” the Freeh Commission report reads. “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.”

Remember, had he not passed away as all of this was unfolding, Paterno may have faced charges like child endangerment, perjury and conspiracy. The NCAA subsequently hammered Penn State with penalties and the school removed the original statue of Paterno that sat adjacent to Beaver Stadium.

Still, the glow of Paterno is so strong, people want to cast him in bronze again and presumably have their picture taken in front of the statue. And that’s what crazy, blindly-loyal fans do.

The plan is for the statue to be in front of a restaurant in downtown State College. The project would be funded privately, as the neither the school nor the the Paterno family will be involved. Interesting that this Paterno statue would have the figure of the coach posed sitting on a bench while reading a book. The removed statue featured Paterno striking a triumphant pose with his right arm extended and making a “No. 1” gesture with his hand as he strode forward.

But I wonder how supporters of the proposed $300,000 statue set to be unveiled in November 2015 would feel if one of their children was a victim of Sandusky. Once again, the victims in this horrendous scandal are pushed to the side in the rush to embrace that other “Paterno legacy.”

No one denies that Joe Paterno was a good man who did many great things in a long and rich life that touched many. But, he’s not a deity. He’s a flawed human who made a very grave mistake.

When will it be a good time to unveil a Paterno statue? I honestly don’t know. Maybe never. Let the university where the man worked and made his name make that call. Personally, my choice would be to have an understated bust of JoePa placed inside the library that bears his name and leave it at that.

But even that can wait.

***

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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Show Comments (11 Comments)
11 Post Your Comment
buci01 on 4/24/2014 @ 4:02pm EDT Said:

I believe this situation should be decided by those that have lived there, attended Penn State and can understand exactly what Coach Paterno meant to this University. It should not be mandated by any Spoets writer or any Television or Radio Network that has in the past has be completely and totally Anti Coach Paterno. Separate what Coach achieved on the Football Field and in the Generous contributions to Penn State University and what happened away from the Laying field. At the time as Coach informed his Superiors, they are the ones that Totally failed in pursuing what had been reported by Coach Paterno. My thinking is Coach had dealt with this prior to his Death , so let this be handled as I Stated at the beginning.

A Penn Stae fan (prior to Joe Pa's dismissal) on 4/24/2014 @ 5:03pm EDT Said:

It is NOT been proven that Joe Pa had any knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s actions.

Don Larson on 4/25/2014 @ 9:22am EDT Said:

Tom, I respect your opinion, but you are painfully out of touch. You, as most of the media, have blindly accepted the findings of the Freeh Report. Were you aware that none of the defendants were interviewed by Freeh? I am an avid PSU supporter and I do not deny there may have been an intentional cover up of these heinous acts, but in this country one is innocent until proven guilty. What if you or a family member was accused of a terrible crime and a third party investigator determined you were guilty? And then you were sentenced to a long prison term without ever being judged by a jury of your peers? This is what happened to those accused at Penn State. Thankfully, the monster who perpetrated these crimes is behind bars for good. Let’s not condemn others who may have covered it up until they get their due process. Until that occurs, I see nothing wrong with celebrating all the good that Paterno did for Penn State, and more importantly, all of those who’s lives he guided and improved. If it is ever proven that he covered up these despicable acts, I’ll be the first to ask them to take down the statue.

B1Gfan MI on 4/25/2014 @ 10:57am EDT Said:

Denial continues !

Joe Williams on 4/25/2014 @ 1:41pm EDT Said:

My Question for Tom: Tom, The Freeh Report also stated that Paterno was involved in the cover-up of Sandusky but the Attorney General’s lead prosecutor stated that there was no proof that Joe Paterno was involved in any cover-up of this incident. Maybe some day you and a few of your colleagues will actually look at the evidence before stating your opinions. I do not believe Joe Paterno was a god, nor did I worship him, but I thought he was a good man that did a lot of good things for the students at Penn State and the community.

Johnny on 4/25/2014 @ 9:21pm EDT Said:

Wow, the cult at Penn State has not learned one lesson or changed one iota, despite the weak sanctions imposed upon their program…. Should have been a death penalty and this proves it.

B1GWestFan on 4/26/2014 @ 1:53am EDT Said:

Tom you are right on the money with this one.

Don, I say if no one has been proven guilty then let the investigation continue. But, until we know for certain that JoePa was not involved with this scandal then I believe we need to stand behind the victims before creating a creating a memorial to an individual who, POSSIBLY, did not protect the young and innocent around him for the sake of football.

Jim on 4/26/2014 @ 3:46pm EDT Said:

Just want to make sure I understand your opinion, who do you think is the central figure in the most heinous scandal in college athletics history? Wouldn’t that be Mr Sandusky? I’m just checking. I guess that story doesn’t generate interweb clicks though. That’s what it’s all about, right? That’s all you really care about, right?

Jim on 4/28/2014 @ 9:10am EDT Said:

Tom, I will ask what evidence you have actually looked at to make your statements. Freeh had limited access to emails and personnel and was bought by the Board of Trustees. The state of PA, Frank Fina, had access to volumes and volumes of evidence and could subpoena any witness. Fina states that he saw “no evidence” that Paterno was part of a cover-up. “No evidence”. What evidence do you have? In late May 2011, Freeh was retained as an independent investigator by the Ethics Committee of FIFA in the bribery scandal centering on Mohammed bin Hammam and Jack Warner. However, the Court of Arbitration of Sports subsequently rejected Freeh’s report as consisting of little more than speculation. That’s the star you want to hitch to?

Anton Solak on 4/28/2014 @ 9:52am EDT Said:

Tom-

As you implied, reasonable people can disagree whether now (or ever) is the right time for a Paterno statue. However, your column repeats some of the misconceptions and distortions that have become almost cliché over the last two years, and also introduces some new ones. Please consider:

“Paterno was seen as being god-like.”

I’m a Penn State alum, and have been affiliated with the university for over 25 years now. In that time, no one — NO ONE — I have spoken to has indicated that they accorded Paterno god-like status. Certainly he was tremendously respected, for obvious reasons. But in addition to being inaccurate, the use of words like “god-like”, “deified”, etc. are – I hope you’ll excuse me – lazy. It serves to paint every Paterno supporter as being part of a cult, and tells your readers that any arguments made in defense of Paterno can be safely and summarily dismissed. I would love to read a column soon (perhaps by you?) that begins “I respect the opinions of those who feel Paterno has been unfairly scapegoated, but I have to disagree, and here are my reasons”.

“Is it really appropriate to commission a statue of a person who was a central figure in the most heinous scandal in college athletics history? All of the horrors of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal are still fresh and they will remain for years. The stain of this will never completely go away. And Paterno is forever linked to the atrocities whether the most ardent JoePa sycophants want to believe it or not. But how can all of those wins, championships and donations trump that?”

First, “sycophant”, like “god-like”, is an unfair pejorative. In addition, it’s inaccurate: a sycophant is someone who is obsequious for the purpose of gaining favor. Since Paterno is dead, that’s clearly impossible. Incorrect use of the word notwithstanding, your question here is perfectly legitimate, although we likely see the underlying situation differently. If the statue causes pain to victims and their families, is it right to install it, even IF one believes that Paterno has been unfairly blamed? I don’t know. I do think that those in favor of the statue have been frustrated by the administration’s active participation in the popular narrative, and want to do what they can to show the public that there are those who do not buy into the conspiracy theory. They see the return of the old statue or the installation of a new one as part of a larger effort to demonstrate Paterno’s innocence. And it’s also reasonable to question whether innocent people shouldn’t be defended, even if it causes discomfort to those who believe them guilty.

“However, this excerpt from the report sums up things painfully well: “The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims,” the Freeh Commission report reads. “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.””

There’s not enough room here to detail all the suppositions and logical leaps that Freeh had to make to come to that conclusion. Instead, I would ask that you remember who commissioned the Freeh Report: a Board of Trustees that had hastily fired a long-time employee immediately after the Grand Jury presentment came out. What would have been a better outcome for them…a report that exonerated Paterno and made abundantly clear how poorly they had handled the situation? Or one that legitimized their panicked decision? If you choose to view the Thornburgh Report with a skeptical eye because you see it as paid advocacy, you must do the same for the Freeh Report.

“Still, the glow of Paterno is so strong, people want to cast him in bronze again and presumably have their picture taken in front of the statue. And that’s what crazy, blindly-loyal fans do.”

I hope you can appreciate the frustration – and often anger – felt by Freeh skeptics when they’re repeatedly labeled “crazy, blindly-loyal” “sycophants”. There are a great many reasons to question Freeh’s conclusions; you don’t need to be a cult member to do so (see: Bob Costas, Ivan Maisel, Dick Thornburgh, etc.). In addition, there are millions of people out there taking pictures with statues of Bear Bryant, Mickey Mantle, Abraham Lincoln, et al. I’m sure these are generally normal people who simply respect those individuals, not necessarily loons.

“No one denies that Joe Paterno was a good man who did many great things in a long and rich life that touched many. But, he’s not a deity. He’s a flawed human who made a very grave mistake.”

I think almost everyone would agree with this paragraph, and I do as well. Where you fill find disagreement is in the nature of the “mistake”. Was his mistake masterminding a cover-up of a known pedophile? If so, he deserves all the vilification he’s receiving from you and others. Was his mistake to underestimate the gravity of questionable behavior by someone he’d known for years, with tragic consequences? If so, then he is one of TENS OF THOUSANDS of individuals – including the parents of children abused by priests, caregivers, etc. – to have made the same mistake. In the latter case, he’s no more deserving of condemnation than any of the anonymous thousands who have made the same error.

One of the very sad ironies of Freeh’s narrative is that it represents a missed opportunity to make children safer. The moral of the Freeh story is that powerful people will gladly sell their souls and harbor a child molester to protect their institution (protect from WHAT isn’t exactly clear…bad press? diminished recruiting? NCAA sanctions? It’s never been articulated what potential consequences were so dire that the administrators felt they had to collaborate with a known child predator). The moral SHOULD have been that each of us may someday encounter a suspicious situation, but even if we have known the individual in question for years…even if the individual is a pillar of the community and known for his charitable work with kids…even if we were told by police three years earlier that the same behavior is not criminal…we should NOT try to determine for ourselves whether something is wrong! Call the Department of Child Welfare and allow them to make that decision. Unfortunately that’s not the message that has been delivered to the public, and the reality is that there are likely pedophiles out there who might’ve been reported, but now will not be.

Big Ten Fan on 4/29/2014 @ 10:25pm EDT Said:

Sorry Tom, but you are wrong. It is a proven fact that Joe did the right thing given what he was told, which wasn’t much. Period. The fabricated cover up narrative is dead.

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