On Statues: Paterno, Elvis, Martin Luther King Jr.



Among the punishments under consideration for Penn 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, it seems to me, is 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.

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. Better to leave it alone as a reminder.

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. Alabama 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, 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, E. H. Crump in Overton Park, and W. C. Handy on Beale Street fall into the latter category. Even Ramesses the Great has a statue, recently moved from The Pyramid to the University of Memphis. Oddly enough, there is no statue in Memphis of Martin Luther King, Jr., although there is in other cities including Charlotte, Albany, and Omaha.

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. A statue of Jefferson Davis has a prominent place in Confederate Park on Front Street downtown. The president of the Confederacy lived in Memphis from 1875 to 1878 and ran an insurance agency. As my colleague Michael Finger ("Ask Vance") has written, the statue was not erected until 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.

Where statues are concerned, with the wisdom of hindsight, sometimes the best course is to not build them at all. But once they are built, 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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