In a rare show of empathy over the power of sports Rod Erickson, the President of Penn State University, had an iconic statue of long-time football coach Joe Paterno removed this morning. In a statement he said, “I believe that, were it to remain, the statue will be a recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation and beyond who have been the victims of child abuse.”
There is so much symbolism in this. Raising statues to living legends (the statue was erected in 2001) does not take into account that they are living human beings whose full story has not yet been told. They live in the real world, creating successes and failures, making good decisions and making mistakes on a daily basis. Putting anyone on a pedestal does not acknowledge their humanity. It pretends that they are someone who is somehow greater than the rest of us and beyond criticism.
Mythological heroes live forever in literature that is unchanging. Real heroes are real men and women whose stories are rewritten every moment that they breathe, and sometimes rewritten by historians long after they are gone. Real people are imperfect and are bound to disappoint us if we elevate them to heroic status. There are those who have moments of courage and heroism, but along with that come moments of cowardice and weakness.
There is no denying that Joe Paterno was a great football coach and he should be recognized in the annals of his sport. He won more games than any other college coach in football history. Aside from his coaching abilities he and his family gave an incredible amount of money back to the community that loved him so much. He brought prestige to his university and town. From all accounts he instilled pride and ethics in his players and taught countless young men important moral and life lessons. But he was human. He was not perfect.
Paterno, along with several others, put the welfare of his football program and his career and legacy ahead of the welfare of children. He likely didn’t do it maliciously, but he is still culpable. Like so many people who are exposed to the possibility of someone they know abusing children he turned the other way; he went into denial. This is a larger problem than Joe Paterno or Penn State. It is a national problem. We have been in denial about child sex abuse as a society and we need to wake up, acknowledge that we have a problem, and then begin to deal with it.
Rod Erickson was right. Leaving the statue on its pedestal would be an affront to child abuse victims and survivors. It would say that Joe Paterno is still on a pedestal, that he is a hero worth emulating. While football coaches may want to emulate his abilities in that limited realm, leaving the statue standing would send a horrible signal to the world that letting those boys suffer at the hands of their perpetrator was an acceptable choice. It was not.
Heroes stand in courage in the most difficult of times. There are countless heroes who make tough choices on a daily basis, who stand up for what is right when that is not the easiest, who selflessly put others ahead of themselves. If statues were built for all the people in the world who do this there would be no room for statues honoring those who have achieved success in a limited field of endeavor. Heroes are also sometimes those who have survived horrible ordeals due to their own inner strength. Perhaps the university should consider creating a memorial to the boys who survived the abuse of Jerry Sandusky and who had the bravery to face that past in bringing him to justice–as long as we understand that they, too, are only human.