In the wake of the publishing of the Freeh report on what various people in positions of power at Penn State either knew or should have known, passions are as inflamed as you would expect. There are those who believe the statue of Joe Paterno should be torn down, or that the football program at Penn State should be suspended or disbanded. Some would like to see both.
Paterno is not without his defenders. Sportswriter Joe Posnanski had been famously working on a Paterno biography at the time the news broke about what Jerry Sandusky was accused – and has now been convicted – of doing. Now, in the wake of the Freeh report, he appears to be pressing on. Another legendary sports figure, baseball statistical guru Bill James, ventured to defend Paterno, prompting his current employer, the Boston Red Sox, to tell him to knock it off.
I hope that those two men will realize in time the error of their thinking. I do not join the line of those condemning them. Imagine any venerated figure in your own life, sports or otherwise, being revealed to be, through inaction, an accessory who allowed a great evil to continue to be carried out. You or I would probably have that knee-jerk defense as a reaction as well.
The situation in Penn State, we now know, was an ongoing tragedy. It was not a tragedy of inevitability, but a tragedy of possibility. Things did not have to end up that way, but they did, and this is the shame of those who played into the larger-than-life myth of Paterno.
To all those whose answer to the Freeh report is to tear down the Paterno statue on the Penn State campus, I would like to suggest an alternate way of making note of the tarnishing of a legacy.
I understand the impulse to get rid of the statue. After all, when it was built, it was meant as a tribute to the man who had done so much for that institution, whose greatness was something that could never be forgotten. That those honors should no longer continue to be heaped upon Paterno is now clear. True, you could argue that removing the statue represents a revocation of all that it stood for.
However, in light of what we now know, I believe that keeping the Paterno statue is important. Now, it does not represent a man who cannot be forgotten, but rather a man who must not be forgotten. This is what can happen when someone becomes so great, when something like a football program is held so dear, that there is no oversight and no one to catch when the ends (preserving that program) start justifying the means (downplaying and hiding the truth of Sandusky’s behavior).