We have about two and a half years of distance from the beginning of the Sandusky saga that tarnished Joe Paterno’s reputation and sent Penn State and the town in which the university is housed headlong into an existential crisis that it’s still sorting through.
I’ve spent the afternoon reading through Michael Weinreb’s numerous pieces on the subject, because they were written by someone who grew up on Paterno lore and who thought State College was an exceptional place before the bad news broke. Like most people, I lack that perspective. I spent my formative years nowhere near central Pennsylvania. What I saw when Jerry Sandusky’s transgressions came to light — and then as the Freeh report confirmed that, yes, JoePa had known about them and took pains to make them go away — was straightforwardly abhorrent hypocrisy. I was angry and a little saddened, but I didn’t feel it in my bones.
Weinreb saw the utter demolition of an ideal he had believed in for decades. He wrote in a post-Freeh report blog post: “now that Paterno is gone, his last best chance to reform big-time college football is to be remembered as one of the worst villains the sport has ever known.” That’s the sort of acidic repudiation you’re going to get only from someone who is close enough to the situation to feel betrayed.
I’ve been consulting Weinreb’s work because some folks in State College are trying to fund a new Joe Paterno statue, and I’m trying to understand what they’re thinking. Even if Weinreb rejected Paterno as both a man and a symbol in the wake of the scandal, there’s a lot in his articles that explains why Penn Staters and State College residents would still feel affection for JoePa. To oversimplify, the story of those who cling to Paterno’s defiled saintdom is the story of people who can’t decouple values they hold dear from a person who was supposed to practice them absolutely. That JoePa-as-paterfamilias stuff you hear from Paterno truthers is troubling, but it’s not fiction. In the minds of many, he stood — and continues to stand — for something, even if in reality, he didn’t stand for much.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to anchor yourself with ideals, the sensible thing to do, now that we know Paterno was cravenly cynical in trying to protect his football program, would be to go on believing in all the noble things the JoePa hagiography complex purported him to embody, but to leave the man behind. Of course, doing the sensible thing can be quite difficult.
The debate over the removal of the first Paterno statue was pretty beside-the-point in comparison to all the other moral quandaries Penn State and State College were grappling with at the time, but removing it was the right call. A statue of anyone is, at best, a dumb form of history, and one of a pedophile defender is considerably worse. Even if Paterno was everything his disciples thought he was, you don’t need a human being to stand in for All That Is Good. Anyway, it’s probably more productive for you to discover what goodness is for yourself, without being provided a template.
This new statue doesn’t really matter, in the way getting rid of the old one didn’t matter. It will be, if it gets made, a hunk of metal that some people might deface and others might find comfort in. It will change nothing.
It’s a bad idea regardless. (Even worse is the tone-deaf decision to have JoePa reading Virgil’s Aeneid, which has, as is typical of a classic, some brutal rape scenes in it.) It’s indicative of a small-mindedness and an intellectual stubbornness that festers in a who-knows-how-large corner of the community. It is a strange and not-a-little-distasteful answer to the question of what State College and the university that defines it should become, now that it’s clear grave mistakes were made. What mistakes? it replies.
The people who are bent on canonizing Joe Paterno will go on canonizing him, either with bronze or hosannas. They can have their version of Paterno. I suppose they deserve it. It’s up to less blinkered members of the community to do some hard thinking, knowing answers may take a very long time to materialize.