Can't Stand That Statue?

As Paterno case shows, sometimes a statue is not a great idea.



Among the punishments under consideration for Pennsylvania State University in light of the Jerry Sandusky scandal is removing the statue of the late football coach Joe Paterno.

The greater and more fitting punishment would be to leave the statue alone. Let it stand as a reminder, background for thousands of news photos and television stand-ups, and campus landmark. Yes, that's beloved Joe, and Penn State fans will never forget him or the way his legend came undone. And every time someone looks at it they'll think of Jerry Sandusky. There could come a time when Paterno's fans want it removed just as much as some of his detractors do now.

There have been several calls for terminating football at Penn State. In other words, punish every player, fan, and coach who was ignorant of the scandal in addition to the university leaders who did know the score. That's too harsh. So is the reaction of ESPN's Rick Reilly, who regrets writing a flattering profile of Paterno for Sports Illustrated 25 years ago. The nine-time national sportswriter of the year has nothing to apologize for.

Tearing down statues inevitably recalls the dictator Saddam Hussein. That turned out to be a less-than-spontaneous demonstration of popular outrage. A dictator who killed his own people is not the same as a football coach who covered up child sexual abuse. Removing Paterno's statue would be the media event of the year. As far as Penn State being a starting point for reforming the power culture of college football, good luck with that.

Americans love college football, and the crowds and contracts will just keep getting bigger. The hype for the start of the Southeastern Conference season, still six weeks away, began this week with a conclave of coaches and hundreds of sportswriters hanging on their every word in Hoover, Alabama. The Alabama Crimson Tide opens the season against Michigan on September 1st in Dallas. Standing-room space is going for $149 on eBay. And Alabama coach Nick Saban already has his own statue in Tuscaloosa, along with Alabama's other national championship coaches.

In Memphis and the Mid-South, we have some controversial statues, along with some that are widely admired. Elvis next to MLGW's headquarters, Elvis and B.B. King at the Welcome Center, E.H. Crump in Overton Park, and W.C. Handy on Beale Street fall into the latter category. Oddly enough, there is no statue in Memphis of Martin Luther King Jr., although there is in other cities including Charlotte, Albany, and Omaha.

Memphis does not have statues of coaches or jocks. Considering what happened to John Calipari and Derrick Rose, that is probably just as well.

Some statues are more trouble than they're worth. Ramesses the Great ruled the Egyptian empire for 66 years more than 3,000 years ago. He had his 15 minutes of fame in Memphis in 1987 during the Wonders exhibition. After the fad was over, the original was returned to Egypt and a replica was produced for the Pyramid, which itself became obsolete a decade later. For eight years, fiberglass Ramesses stood watch in front of an empty building. In June, the blasted thing was hauled over to the University of Memphis.

The most controversial statue in Memphis is the Nathan Bedford Forrest monument on Union Avenue near downtown. In 2005, there was some pressure to remove the monument, relocate the gravesite, and rename the park, but it faded after then-Mayor Willie Herenton and others said it was not such a good idea. Forrest and his mount were unmoved.

A statue of Jefferson Davis has a prominent place in Confederate Park downtown. The president of the Confederacy lived in Memphis from 1875 to 1878 and ran an insurance agency, not the most heroic thing in the world. The statue was erected in 1964, nearly a century after the end of the war.

In Jackson, Mississippi, there is a statue of former segregationist governor and Ku Klux Klan member Theodore Bilbo. It was originally in the Capitol rotunda but was moved to a committee room used by, among others, the Legislative Black Caucus.

With the wisdom of hindsight, sometimes the best course is to not build a statue at all, even when it seems like a good idea at the time. But once the deed is done, the best course is usually to leave them alone. That's what Penn State should do, for better and for worse.

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