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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Before Penn State Puts Up That Statue of Joe Paterno Again. . .

If you live in or near Pennsylvania or visit there, you'll see reminders of Joe Paterno and a lot of Penn State decals and license plates.  It stands to reason, as Penn State not only is one of the main state universities for Pennsylvanians, but also because it is a very good one.  Most Penn States will tell you how much they enjoyed it in State College, a/k/a Happy Valley.  They'll talk to you about the football team and about the Creamery, the ice cream venue in State College that offers the best ice cream on the planet (except for all the other stores that can make the same claim). 

Recently, about 200 former football players sent a letter to the university's president asking that they reinstate the Paterno statue that was taken down several years ago after the Jerry Sandusky affair came to light.  There was a media frenzy, the media version of a natural disaster, that befell the Penn State community and the NCAA.  Much action was taken -- by the Penn State board, by the NCAA -- and several years later all is not back to normal.

Penn State continues to mete through the claims of many men who claim that Jerry Sandusky abused them years ago and that Joe Paterno knew of Sandusky's problem and turned the other way.  There are allegations that other coaches, some prominent names now, knew of things, too.  Now, the Paterno family disputes these claims and has hired a high-powered lawyer to defend it.  No doubt, crisis communications firms are involved, too, trying to protect the images of Penn State and of the Paterno family. 

Many tied part of their Penn State existence and good feelings about the school to Joe Paterno, turning him into a walking, living God.  The gospel was how omniscient Paterno was, hard-working, smart, humble, and how he ran a clean program where most of his players graduated.  Penn State was in the conversation for the top ten teams in the country and occasionally contended for and won a national championship.  Atop that, a kid could get a very good education at a school that graduate and professional schools liked as well as employers.  That's pretty good. 

I get all that.

My sense is that among these 200 former players are those who credit Paterno for having changed their lives, who credit Paterno for helping them win a championship, who are angry that someone that good could be questioned and who may be in denial that Paterno did anything at all wrong.  You find a group of 200, and my guess is that you have a cocktail of motivations -- it's not all the same thing. 

There can be no doubting as to the good that Paterno did.  You can read about how he urged the university to upgrade the academic programs, helped raise funds and ran a great football program.  It's hard to counter that or take it away.  It happened.  And a lot of it was good.

But then there's this other stuff, and it's not over.  There haven't been final decisions or adjudications as to what Coach Paterno knew and when he knew it and whether he could have or should have done anything about it.  The Paterno family is arguing vigorously that the claimants are wrong.  Penn State is defending itself against liability.  The plaintiffs are asserting what they have held back for years -- that Jerry Sandusky abused them.  And Sandusky is serving a long prison sentence, one that is likely to see him die in jail.  He does not deserve to get out.

The issue of the statue is more complicated.  (I have to say that I am not unbiased -- I thought it was in poor taste that a statue was put up of someone who was still alive, and it lacked the humility that Coach Paterno was heralded as possessing).  The former football players stand firmly behind the Paterno family.  My guess is that they are not related to or did not know any of the victims.  The Paterno supporters would say that is irrelevant, because there is no evidence that Coach Paterno knew about what Sandusky was doing.  If they are right, then, assuming that you like statues, well, then perhaps Penn State should restore it.  But if they are wrong, then what?

Right now, it is unclear whether they are right or wrong.  But until Penn State goes through its process and the claims are settled or adjudicated, Penn State should wait to make its decision about that statue.  Happy Valley has not healed and is clearly not happy right now.  But those who run Penn State should not yield to the loudest or most forceful of voices.  They also should consider those of now grown men who had no voice and could not speak or get a hearing for years.

Until that happens, there can be no peace in Happy Valley.  And, right now, there is not justice, at least not complete justice, and at least not yet.

There are more important things than the statue.  Let the process go on and conclude.

And then decide.


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