From the Statue, Learn Its Lesson

In the wake of the Freeh report, there are renewed calls for Penn State University to remove the seven-foot statue of Joe Paterno at Beaver Stadium. An article in Thursday’s  Philadelphia Inquirer, “Joe Paterno Statue a Lightning Rod,” highlights the range of emotions swirling around whether the university should take down the statue, and other on-campus  signs of Paterno, after the report revealed the legendary coach’s collusion in covering up Jerry Sandusky’s awful crimes.    On one hand, a woman who heroizes Paterno is quoted as saying: “People, outside people, don’t realize what they’re doing to us.  It’s really upsetting.”  She is joined by another person visiting the statue who says, “He’s dead, and he hasn’t got the chance  to say anything in his defense.”  Conversely, a man in a passing car shouts at those by the statue, “Pedophile enablers!”  And Paterno’s colleague, Bobby Bowden, favors the statue’s removal: “Every time they show the statue on TV, people won’t remember the good years.”    A decision about the statue’s future is reportedly imminent.

I, for one, believe the statue should remain, at least for now.  There has been enough denial already at PSU.  Let us have no distancing, no scrubbing, no fantasies of  “getting this behind” Penn State.   The only way forward is the way through. Let everyone who is willing stand before the statue, with Joe’s arm upraised and index finger pointing in a number one, and consider the truth of the present situation and how things have come to this.  Do not deny the 409 victories, the national championships, the grateful testimonies of former players, the inspirational messages, the joy of countless fall afternoons in Happy Valley, or the many- faceted, generous contributions of the Paterno family to the institution so identified with his visage and legend.  Stand before the statue, as so many alums, former players, and longtime fans have done and will yet do, and give expression to its meaning,whatever that may be.  Try to understand the sentiment of the woman who laments the crushing fall of a man and a school she loves, even if like me you wince at her “outside people” reference. It is no wonder that the revelations about this beloved leader’s involvement in an unspeakable tragedy are so painful for people to bear. But this is where we are, collectively.

Syndicated columnist Eugene Robinson has opined that the university ought to consider adding another another bronze figure to the display, that of a young boy crying out in anguish and being coldly ignored.  His sentiment is justified and also points to truth, awful truth.    Allow me to suggest that even without an additional statue, that young boy and a number of others will surely be present as we  stand before Joe’s upraised  finger.  They must be.  And it is critical that everyone dare to seriously ponder the words of NCAA President Mark Emmert, who says he’s “never seen anything as egregious as this in terms of overall conduct and behavior inside a university.”  To those who protest that what happened is not all Joe’s fault, there may be some measure of comfort.  It took a village.

In my November essay, “Forgiving Joe Paterno,”  I  imagined JoePa’s  “deep longing to cherish anew the depth and texture of more than six decades of life in State College and all that history holds, including, one hopes, the realization of lines crossed blindly and the damage done.”  I added: ” This narrative need not end in amputation.”  As a fan and admirer, I regret that Paterno is not alive to experience with us what the grace of God can do with even the most painful of stories.  Thankfully, the school has no such limitations.

Aaron Lazare has studied dimensions of apology and what constitutes an effective apology. He cites four phases: (a) acknowledgment of the offense (b) explanation (c) expressions of remorse and humility, and (d) reparation.  How might each relate to the addressing of injustice and possibilities for healing in the wake of the Penn State tragedy?

(1)  Acknowledgment of the Offense: For Penn State, this will involve both individual and communal accountability, in a painstaking detail not yet realized.    Yes, Jerry Sandusky, for many years a heralded assistant coach at Penn State, was the perpetrator of  repeated, violent abuses of children, some still coming to light.  The defenseless children are the victims, along with their families. Their stories must continue to be heard.  And all who colluded in covering up these crimes or turning the other way must assume a measure of responsibility. Who turned their heads away?  Who failed to act?  Who sought to justify?  What were the costs?  One recalls Dr. King’s statement that the present generation would not only have to repent for the sins of bad people but also for the appalling silence and indifference of good people.   Those words clearly apply to the contemporary situation, and will continue to apply in the face of any rationalizations. The Freeh report begins to clarify these larger dimensions of responsibility.    The leadership of Penn State University needs to acknowledge that this is indeed the most egregious institutional failure in NCAA history, and that those entrusted with leadership stonewalled investigations even as the victim count mounted, betraying everyone.  Responsible people need to claim it.

(2)  Explanation:  While it is doubtful that a justifiable explanation is possible, the reasons for institutional failure must be articulated as clearly as possible. This will be painful, along the order of: “The football program was treated as more important than the child victims;”  “The University lost control of the athletic department;”  “The program was too big to fail;” “We were too frightened to do what was right;” “We acted like Joe was bigger-than-life.” All such explanations will further highlight the overwhelming tragedy but, if they are true, will be a step toward a new future.

(3)  Expressions of Remorse and Humility: The needs of those wounded must be responded to carefully and in an undefended fashion.  It must be demonstrated that this will never, ever happen again.  It is possible that Penn State will face the NCAA “death penalty,” with the football program suspended for a year and all the players released.If that happens, it should be accepted without protest.   What would demonstrate a much stronger commitment is for the school to unilaterally suspend the program and take the financial hit, while fully addressing the revelations and charting an accountable, repentant way forward.  This would go a ways to restoring trust in the university for future generations.  This would also indicate an embrace of forgiveness and its possibilities, while acknowledging the idolatrous situation which compounded so much suffering.

(4)  Reparation:  This would be a manifestation of apology that would seek to compensate, in a real or symbolic way, for the transgression.  The unilateral suspension, and the alternative devotion of resources to healing and restoration of trust, might constitute a beginning.  Coach Nick Saban of Alabama suggested the possibility of a tax on tickets to athletic events at the school and “give the proceeds to some child-abuse organization.”  This is well-meaning but misguided.  There can be no outsourcing of the hard work necessary.  It is possible that the victim families themselves can articulate meaningful steps with concrete implications for helping.  Coach Saban’s suggestion would only be appropriate when charting new direction and priority long term.

Perhaps all this can be pondered in the shadow of the statue.  It seems to me that honest reflection at every level, and the accompanying hard work of accountability and healing, are the only ways that all that has been good can truly be recovered and celebrated, and new history composed that can flow from the fullness of what has preceded it, without being bound by it.  And maybe Joe can be life -size again, a mercy for his memory and all who have loved him.