It should surprise no one that a large group of former Penn State football players came forward this week to lobby for the on-campus return of Coach Joe Paterno’s memorial statue.
For years, many ex-Nittany Lions have been unwavering in their support of Paterno — the winningest coach in major college football (409 victories) — died from complications with lung cancer in January 2012, just months after being fired.
Former players have been especially boisterous about posthumously clearing Paterno’s name relative to his role – direct or indirect – in the child sex-abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, a prominent Penn State assistant for four decades (1966 to 1999), who was later convicted on 45 counts of sexual misconduct, criminal mischief and child endangerment.
Sandusky is currently serving a 60-year term inside a Pennsylvania prison, with no possibility of parole until 2042.
Here’s an excerpt of the letter sent to Penn State president Eric Barron, penned by former tight end Brian Masella, representing 200-plus players from the Nittany Lion family:
“We have been told during the last four-plus year(s) that the board and administration are waiting for the appropriate time to repair the damage they created,” wrote Massella (via The Philadelphia Inquirer and PennLive.com). “Now is the appropriate time. Enough is enough!”
“[Franco Harris, outspoken critic of the university’s handling of Paterno,] told us, as players, as alumni, to remain fighting for the truth from the trustees because they haven’t been outwardly corporative [sic] and truthful in fighting for the football program, or its former coaches, players, etc., and the alumni in general, in this Sandusky matter; the players that signed on, none of us are guilty of any wrongdoing, and we feel like we’ve been thrown under the bus by the trustees circa the time Joe was fired.”
This column won’t be taking a stand on whether the Paterno statue belongs back on campus. Instead, for argument sake, let’s say Penn State already favors the notion of reinstating Paterno’s iconic statue.
Would school officials — along with the former players demanding a statue revival — be equipped to handle the torrent that would surely follow around the country, on numerous fronts? There will be backlashes from the media, victim’s families and others around the university community.
By bringing this issue back into the public light, the media now has free reign to dredge up the sordid details of Sandusky’s wrongdoings while still part of the Penn State family, along with his corrupt activities when operating The Second Mile foundation.
These discussions would also include the various coverups that occurred within the Penn State administration, along with whatever knowledge Paterno had of Sandusky’s actions.
And frankly, that’s how it should be. They say time heals all wounds, but who’s in charge of determining when that expiration date should come? We’re talking about an unprecedented case of sexual misconduct at the university level.
There’s no universal template of understanding here.
There’s also no way to read the tea leaves on this one, without tossing out a few trial balloons.
The compassionate optimist living outside the state of Pennsylvania might feel that Joe Paterno’s name has been sullied enough over the last five years. They might also cite the lack of hard evidence indicating many decades of duplicity on Paterno’s part.
The optimist might also praise Penn State football for running a clean program during the turbulent probationary times. Former head coach Bill O’Brien weathered that early storm and James Franklin has carried the torch further in doing things the right way.
In a bit of honesty, I originally thought the Sandusky scandal would rock Penn State for 10 or 15 years, reducing the program to a shell of its former self. But good things happen when you hire good people during moments of crisis, and the O’Brien and Franklin hires reflect Penn State’s willingness to make things right.
Or at least return normalcy to a campus that has college football deeply rooted in its DNA.
But let’s not forget this side of it, either. After all, there are two sides to every story.
The compassionate realist, in perpetuity, might have a problem with Paterno’s statue becoming part of campus lore once again. Removing the statue in the first place was meant to be a sign that no matter how many good things Paterno did through the years – and the list is long and distinguished – removing the statue was a way of sticking up for the kids who couldn’t defend themselves against Sandusky’s abhorrent actions.
As such, their visceral reaction to a statue revival could be more damaging than any single media column or video denouncing Penn State’s decision. The school had to deal with campus unrest throughout 2010 and 2011, and that pattern could repeat itself in the wake of Paterno’s statue reappearing for the masses.
Which brings us to this …
If Penn State officials brought back the Paterno statue, would it have an accessible outside location? Or would would the statue be placed in a safe, controlled environment, where patrons can only visit the memorial at certain hours of the day?
And what about the hype surrounding this hypothetical circumstance? Would Penn State officials be wise to make a public spectacle of Paterno’s bronzed return, or would a low-key reinstatement be the classier and more politically correct gesture?
Speaking from personal experience – I have many lifelong friends who are proud Penn State grads – a vast majority of alums are steadfastly supportive and extremely protective of Paterno’s legacy.
As such, when tossing out trial balloons on this high-profile, ultra-sensitive subject, it would behoove university officials to send out test gauges that extend far past the borders of Pennsylvania.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.