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On the Hasty Canonization of Joe Paterno

Over at the Times I offered some thoughts on the swelling chorus calling for the removal of the statue to Joe Paterno:


The need to clean history so that the record might reflect our current values, and not our sordid past, is broad. In Columbia, S.C., there stands a statue of Ben Tillman, the populist South Carolina senator who helped found Clemson University and, in his spare time, defended lynching from his august national offices. For years there have been calls to remove Tillman's statue, emanating from those who think it a shame to continue to honor him. But in a democracy, memorial statues are not simply comments on their subjects, but comments on their makers. That Americans once saw fit to honor a man who defended terrorism from the Senate floor is a powerful statement about our identity and history...

The problem here is not that Paterno shamed Happy Valley, but that Happy Valley, through its broad blindness, has shamed itself. Last week an artist who'd once painted Paterno with a halo altered his mural by removing it. This effort has less to do with the better rendering of Paterno and more to do with escaping the shame of hasty canonization.

 Arguing for the statue's removal, the legendary coach Bobby Bowden said he wouldn't want Sandusky's crimes "brought up every time I walked out on the field." That's the point. Sandusky's crimes should never be forgotten, nor should the crimes of the broader community. It is shameful to deify men who put nationalist ritual before children. But it is more shameful to pretend that this elevation was achieved by Joe Paterno's singular hand. 

I go on to suggest adding an inscription that details Jerry Sandusky's crimes, Paterno's role, and more broadly, the role of culture which elevated the sanctity of football over the safety of children. You can get some sense of that culture in Franco Harris's strident defense of Paterno, after it became clear that he'd known about an eyewitness accusation against Sandusky, done nothing about it, thus allowing Sandusky to continue to assault children:

"I feel that the board made a bad decision in letting Joe Paterno go. I'm very disappointed in their decision. I thought they showed no courage, not to back someone who really needed it at the time. They were saying the football program under Joe was at fault. 

"They really wouldn't give a reason. They're linking the football program to the scandal and, possibly, the cover up. That's very disturbing to me. ... I think there should be no connection to the football program, only in the case that it happened at the football building with an ex-coach. I'm still trying to find out who gave him access to the building, who signed that contract." 

Harris also was critical of state police commissioner Frank Noonan for suggesting that Paterno had a "moral obligation" to report Sandusky had sexually assaulted a boy in the showers at the Lasch Building to the police once informed by an eyewitness, a 28-year-old graduate assistant coach later identified as current Penn State wide receivers coach and recruiting coordinator Mike McQueary. 

"When I heard that, it blew my mind," Harris said. "Why would they bring the moral into the legal? Now, everyone gets to interpret in their own way. That's what really bothers me: Joe did what was right for him to do. He forwarded the information to his superiors. That's the legal procedure at Penn State.

What we now know is that  Paterno did not simply fail to report the 2001 rape which Mike McQueary witnessed, he failed to report a previous accusation in 1998. Then he lied to a grand jury and claimed that before the 2002 accusation, he'd never heard any accusations about Sandusky.

The point I'm driving at is that in a free society, I am skeptical of the notion that sins can simply be pinned solely at the top. What you see in the videos of Penn State kids rioting, in the dead-enders still defending, is something deeper. Taking down the statue, or erasing the halo from the mural, allows us to pretend that this is really about one person, not something more systemic. Why paint the halo in the first place?

UPDATE: As pointed out in comments the 1998 accusation was, in fact, reported. My apologies for the error.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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