Statue might be gone, but horror still remains

Statue might be gone, but horror still remains

Published Jul. 22, 2012 3:44 p.m. ET

The most hollow debate in sports finally can end. Joe Paterno's statue no longer points to the sky outside Beaver Stadium.

Penn State University president Rod Erickson said in a statement about the statue's predawn removal that Penn State had to confront a "failure of leadership at many levels" in light of Jerry Sandusky's crimes.

So it removed a statue.

Which barely begins to confront failure in any real way. It just removes a statue and ends an obsession with it that was misplaced and illogical.

"The statue of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium has become a lightning rod of controversy and national debate, including the role of big-time sports in university life," Erickson said in the statement.

Which hints that the statue's removal stemmed from the controversy, not the child abuse scandal and the failure of Penn State to address child abuse in their facilities. Interesting, but probably a legal reality given the civil suits awaiting Penn State. And evidently, said debate does not extend to libraries, because Paterno's name remains there. And it will remain forever associated with Penn State, no matter how the lovers or haters feel about it.

What happened Sunday morning was Penn State officials took down a statue they never should have put up in the first place. The statue was a hollow symbol when it went up, and it is now that it's come down. Hollow because no football coach is bigger than any university, hollow because no university should accept what happened at Penn State the past decade.

That in itself is shocking. For more than 10 years, Sandusky was allowed — note the word — to lure the most innocent of innocents into the Penn State facility and abuse them. Ten years of willful disregard for the well-being and emotional safety of children took place.

Denying that Paterno did many good things at Penn State is denying reality. But in one hugely important issue he let his own self-importance get in the way of doing enough, and that was playing a role in the football-is-God culture that turned away from reprehensible crimes.

Maybe people had to focus their anger somewhere, so they looked to the statue, this symbol of what it means when one man, one program become larger than life, larger than the university.

But consider people such as Harold Benjamin, John Biggers and Julius Epstein. Paul Berg, Guion Bluford, T. Ming Chu and Barbara Franklin.

All are Penn State graduates, their names readily available on the alumni website. Berg is a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. Bluford was the first African-American in space. Chu developed a test to detect prostate cancer, and Franklin is a former US Secretary of Commerce. Benjamin founded a wellness community in Los Angeles that gave support and education to cancer victims. Biggers graduated in 1948, when segregation was rampant, but that didn't stop him from becoming an inspiring artist to other young African-Americans. And Epstein co-wrote "Casablanca" — one of the greatest movies of all-time.

Are their contributions not statue-worthy?

Coaches take on an importance because of the financial benefits they provide with wins. Lose, and they're fired. The NCAA talks about the importance of the student-athlete and reportedly is ready to hammer Penn State with an unprecedented punishment. But then it turns around and perpetuates the same system by putting its football championship game up for bid. It's all about the competition, of course.

Last week, when he spoke at the Southeastern Conference Media Days, Alabama coach Nick Saban suggested a tax on Penn State tickets to benefit child abuse victims. Then he went into the bathroom, as two guards stood outside the door to make sure nobody else entered.

At least Paterno never accepted that kind of protection. Scoffed at it in fact. Sadly, when his protection was needed most, when children needed someone to step forward and protect them, he didn't do enough.

And that is where the discussion should be focused. On those failures of inaction and on the role football should play at a university set up to educate young men and women. Because when a guy who seemed to try his best to get it right has this happen, some serious reflection is needed. Football matters, but it's no more important than the history department.

Paterno did a lot of good.

In the Sandusky case he made a terrible mistake.

He failed.

Which makes him human. Just like the rest of the world.