In the wake of allegations that Joe Paterno helped cover up Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young boys, Penn State has taken down its statue of the legendary football coach.
As a student of history, I’ve been wondering whether it was the right thing to do.
After Joseph Stalin died in March 1953, his successors gradually sought to acknowledge his crimes. Eventually, Nikita Khrushchev gave a “secret speech” at a party congress in February 1956 in which he addressed many of Stalin’s atrocities. Over the next few years, Stalingrad became Volgograd, and his remains were removed from their place next to Lenin’s tomb in Red Square and buried behind the Kremlin Wall. Even the name of the Stalin Prize was changed to the Lenin Prize, and previous laureates, who had received the honor under the tyrant, were asked to return the medal in exchange for a newly minted one.
But then the regime hit a snag. The more compliant citizens duly returned their Stalin medals, but those who were more independent minded ignored the request: They refused to engage in yet another Stalinist exercise to camouflage their country’s tragic history.
There are other historical examples closer to home. For instance, when I am in Washington, D.C. and see J. Edgar Hoover’s name on the façade of the FBI Building, I often wonder if we should continue to honor his memory. Given what we know now about his abuses of power, wouldn’t it make sense to change the name of the building? But if we go through the trouble of erasing his name and replacing it with a more acceptable, politically neutral or heroic figure to honor in his stead, it seems we are missing an opportunity.
Let it stay there as a rebuke, as a glaring “finger in the face,” a reminder of Hoover’s actions and the failure of succeeding presidents and Congress to hold him accountable. For better or worse J. Edgar Hoover embodies the history of the FBI, and his name belongs over the building’s entrance.
This brings me back to Penn State and Joe Paterno. As reprehensible as his behavior may have been (he is no longer around to face his accusers or defend himself), it goes without saying that his alleged complicity in Sandusky’s behavior does not rise to the level of Hoover’s, let alone Stalin’s, criminality. But there is a similar lesson here nonetheless.
I believe Penn State chose the easy solution when it decided to take Paterno’s statue down: The school can pretend it has learned its lesson. But I believe the statue should hold a prominent place on the Penn State campus.
As long as his team was winning and bringing home the bacon – millions of dollars of revenue and the kind of glamour that passes for prestige among misguided alumni – university administrators looked the other way when it came to the sexual abuse of young boys. Let them and their successors walk past the Paterno statue every day. It might compel them to consider why they put it there in the first place.