Over the past couple of days, I've listened with mounting frustration as people debate whether Penn State University should remove from its campus the 900-pound bronze statue of Joe Paterno, its once-legendary football coach. It's as if, to the folks who demand action, taking away a metal JoePa would serve as another blow to the real JoePa; one last spear in the heart of the fallen hero who apparently looked elsewhere as Jerry Sandusky, his longtime assistant coach and friend, molested one child after another.
Sadly, it just doesn't work that way.
As much as I have come to abhor Joe Paterno's indifference and arrogance and self-serving loyalty (to himself and his image and his stupid little football program), I fail to see how digging out a statue does anything but conflict with (what should be) one of the most important elements of higher education: Open and honest and intelligent dialogue. Were I in command of this decision, not only would I make certain the statue stays, I'd surround it with flood lights and fireworks and hire Flavor Flav to hype its very presence. "Come one, come all! Camp out! Bring classmates! Observe the bronze Joe Paterno! Debate away!"
Truth be told, the last thing we (and Penn State) should be doing right now is trying to hide and forget what happened. Bronze Joe Paterno needs to remain, because we need to talk about this. We need to discuss ways to stop child abuse. We need to discuss the courage it takes to step forward, especially when it's significantly easier to remain silent. We need to discuss the goals of college.
Mostly, we need to discuss statues themselves -- and what they reflect. The reason Jerry Sandusky was able to perpetrate his evil is because at Penn State (as at hundreds of other Division I schools across America) sports have exceeded academics in importance. The athletic programs are responsible for large dollars; for large enrollments; for national attention; for eternal glory. They are not to be stopped or interfered with or questioned.
Joe Paterno has a statue for the same reason Auburn University built one for former quarterback Cam Newton (a non-graduate who attended the school for one year) -- because football (literally, the launching of a synthetic oval contraption through the air) exceeds all else. Why, in 2007, five Penn State scientists (Richard Alley, William Easterling, Klaus Keller, Michael Mann, Anne Thompson) shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change issues. None of them have statues (rest assured, had any committed Sandusky-like acts, they would have been turned over to the authorities in minutes). None of them will have statues. Ever.
Bronze Joe Paterno needs to stay because, deep within his metallic eyeballs, there is a story to be told. Years and years from now, when most of us are gone and this scandal is merely a blip in history, he will hopefully serve as the essential reminder that, once upon a time, we deified people for their ability to win ultimately meaningless and trivial games.
And we paid a dear price for doing so.
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