The Ethical Fate For Joe Paterno’s Statue

In the wake of the Freeh Report’s revelations regarding the extent of the late Joe Paterno’s involvement in allowing Jerry Sandusky’s child molesting appetites to be sated with Penn State’s  assistance, many are calling for the campus statue honoring the now-disgraced coach to be removed.

I am generally opposed to removing memorials and honors to historical figures according to the popular verdicts of the day, for several reasons. The main one is that every individual who ever achieved something worthy of such honor also was guilty of misconduct that someone could convincingly argue outweighs it on moral or ethical grounds. New facts are uncovered, cultural values shift, and over time, no revered figure is safe from deconstruction. The reverse is also inevitable: if a life can be judged unworthy of honor, subsequent generations may well disagree. The verdict of a community, a culture and an era should be given due weight and respect;  a statue, memorial or monument not only recognizes an individual but also represents the judgment of our predecessors. Leave their judgments alone, and if we disagree with them, try to make ours better.

The alternative is to have changing attitudes and assessments send statues up and down like so many yo-yos. There is also the matter of deserved recognition for particular accomplishments, made embarrassing by later conduct. Charles Lindbergh’s brave solo flight across the Atalantic was a cultural watershed for the U.S., with far-reaching consequences, almost all of them good. Lindbergh deserves immortality for that achievement. Still, the more we learn about the aviation hero the worse his character appears: he was pro-fascist, anti-Semitic, a champion of eugenics, and maintained two mistresses in Germany while his marriage was being celebrated in the U.S. as the epitome of a love match. Never mind: Charles Lindbergh was one of the trailblazers of American aviation, and his contributions in that field should not be ignored or diminished because of his deficits in character.

Institutions and fields that reject their architects and champions cut themselves off from their origins, making them cultural orphans. To this day, the national trial lawyer association that is indebted to the late “King of Torts,” Melvin Belli, for its very existence refuses to acknowledge his indispensable role in advancing the art of trial practice as well as his heroic efforts to establish the organization. The reason for Belli’s rejection was his late-career client recruitment techniques, which outraged his colleagues and created multiple public relations disasters for the profession. Still, Belli’s positive achievements were already significant and substantial, and neither can or should be denied. The same is true of J. Edgar Hoover, whose name on the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the F.B.I. is periodically a target of historical revisionists. Hoover founded the F.B.I. and devoted his life to building it. Whatever his flaws and misdeeds, and they were many and awful, he still deserves proper credit and recognition for what he did right.

At Penn State, Joe Paterno’s legacy is now in a similar position to Hoover’s. Paterno built the football program and record-setting team performance that brought fame, prestige and dollars to his university. His hard work, dedication, vision and talent changed the lives of thousands of students for the better. At the end, Paterno’s program was allowed to corrupt and warp the school’s values, doing immeasurable harm to both the institution and Sandusky’s victims, and the legendary coach was exposed as a hypocrite and enabler of evil. By that time, however, Penn State’s reasons for gratitude were already in the books. Joe earned his statue, just as Hoover earned his building.

There is a key difference however. Joe Paterno’s statue stands at an institution charged with the mission of training and shaping young Americans to be productive members of society, and that means that the right values must be clearly endorsed and conveyed. The Sandusky scandal, with Joe Paterno as a primary participant, represents an utter failure of values like caring, responsibility, civic duty, fairness, justice, accountability, courage, honesty, and many more.  How can a statue of Joe Paterno be tolerated where  young minds and character are at risk of taint?

Here is how.

The most compelling reason not to tear down the statues of tarnished heroes is that it abets one of human nature’s most destructive instincts, which is to forget, ignore and deny the events and episodes of the past that upset, embarrass, or frighten us. Ultimately this tendency becomes a cultural habit, one that removes the opportunity for future generations to extract wisdom from past mistakes. The fact that Joe Paterno’s  statue is on a college campus is the best reason of all to leave it up.

Penn State should teach courses around that statue of Joe Pa, about the responsibilities of leadership, the opiate of success, the temptations of greed, the mechanics of corruption, and organizational dynamics. Future Penn State students need to learn the lessons of Joe Paterno’s rise and fall, and the university should embrace and institutionalize them. Paterno’s statue will guarantee that nobody at Penn State will ever forget what happened, no matter how much they would like to.

Letting Joe’s statue stay is the courageous and responsible thing to do, not because his legacy hasn’t been ruined, but because it has.


Source and Graphic: New York Times

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at

17 thoughts on “The Ethical Fate For Joe Paterno’s Statue

  1. Someone on the Whiner Line said that the statue should be turned around. so it has turned its back on the kids he betrayed. I thought that was good.

    • Holy Cats, John! I don’t know where that “m” came from—thanks for flagging that so fast. That’s the worst spelling of Lindbergh I’ve ever seen. I guess I was thinking about cheese. My apologies. That was inexcusable.

  2. LINDBERGH! LOL He also flew combat mission in the south pacific when he was told not to do so. His aviation expertise was instrumental in teaching the pilots and aviators how to fly long distance combat patrols.

  3. While I agree only in part with your argument , I would offer a stark reminder to those who know neither the man or the circumstances of this heinous cover-up. Put a cage of bars around his statue alone and let those who wonder why such exists learn the facts. For the living…..significant jail time will be needed.

  4. Excellent analysis. It’s making me rethink my attitude toward USC’s honoring its Heisman winners–including O.J.Simpson–with a large display at the Coliseum. It reminds the spectator that the athletes we cheer for aren’t always so admirable. I guess that’s a good thing.


    • Thank you, Bob—your critiques are always cherished. This was an example of me changing my mind about a topic mid-post. I love it when that happens…it means that I’m not ossified yet.

  5. I’m not sure that Lindbergh et al are a comparison. Lindbergh didn’t support Hitler because he needed Hitler, and when the chips were down, he was on the right side; Hoover’s wrongdoing is similarly severable from his leadership. Joe Paterno absolutely would not be able to recruit to the winningest record in FBS history, and a private school in rural Pennsylvania wouldn’t have been able to raise the funds to recruit and compete at the Big Ten level, if he hadn’t protected a monster. Moreover, Paterno’s legacy was supposed to be more than wins; he was the paragon of doing things “the right way”, and that statue is as much of the myth of Paterno as the objective fact of him.

    At the end of the day, I can’t say whether the statue should come down; it’s not dirt-cheap to remove a statue, and maybe it’ll inflict the recruiting and fundraising damage the NCAA can’t. I think the only lesson here is more practical than ethical, especially as college football’s East Egg develops statue fever: wait untill the person you’re trying to memorialize is, you know, dead.

  6. I think they should leave it also. That way everytime someone walks by it or it gets shown on TV people will talk about his participating in a cover up and his inaction to protect these children allowed a sexual predator to continue to abuse children. And I don’t say this becuase I want to see him and his family humiliated . I say it becuase by doing so it will get people to discuss what happened and see what they should do if they suspect a child is being abused.

  7. Leave the statue up, but terminate the football program. Then JoePa’s statue could stand there greeting nobody.

  8. There should be no statues erected for anyone until several years have passed and the world has a chance to see the positive and the negative. In life, the negatives sometimes get overshadowed by the good. Paterno’s statue was erected for what he did as a football coach and obviously for what the Penn State loyalists thought of him as a human being. Now that the Paterno’s picture has come into sharper focus it is time to admit an error in judgement was made and it is time to trash the statue. Imagine if a statue to Hitler had been erected in 1939. Does anyone think that this statue should be allowed to stand as a reminder of the good that he may have done prior to exterminating an ethnic group? Take it down and put a statue commemorating the young victims in it’s place. Paterno should not command the type of veneration that comes with erecting a statue. It is an insult to every decent human being.

    • It’s a great point, Mike. The fact that the statue was erected while Paterno was still coach shows the degree of disproportional reverence and power he had at Penn State. In America, erecting statues to living figures has traditionally been regarded as unseemly; this shows why it is also unwise.

      Replacing Paterno’s statue with one memorializing the scandal would satisfy me.

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