I have a confession to make: I know people at Penn State. They are friends of mine.
There, I said it. And I’ll add this. They’re good people, nice people. Their only sin, best I can tell, is they live in a place suddenly in the news and not in a good way.
I’ve known one of them for a long time. She used to work for me as a reporter. She now teaches English at the university located in State College, Pa. — an enclave tucked into the mountains once known as Happy Valley.
Now it’s known for woe. That’s what happens when the most egregious scandal ever to hit a college campus and an athletics program land at a site previously known for an image touted as beyond squeaky clean operated by coach universally thought to be if not a saint at least a runnerup. The news last week that football coach Joe Paterno and Penn State administrators hid the unfathomable criminal activities of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky — now a convicted rapist of defenseless children — has incensed the sensibilities of the nation.
And with Paterno, who died of lung cancer late last year, in the grave, there is nowhere for America to collectively dump the vitriol except upon those who live and work at State College.
That’s a shame.
Because people like my friend have done nothing wrong. They just happen now to work at a place in the crosshairs of public outrage.
Yesterday, when an aircraft flew over the town pulling a banner reading, “Take the statue down or we will,” a pointed threat to the now controversial statue of Paterno in front of the school’s football stadium smilingly leading the Nittany Lions charges on the field.
Here’s a message I got yesterday from my friend in State College.
“Don’t know if you heard about this yet, but this morning, most of us in State College saw a plane flying overhead trailing a banner reading: “take down the statue or we will.” I have nothing to say about the content, but State College is not a very nice place to live right now. I was at (youth sports) practice with my sons and many other parents. Many of the kids And adults were wearing PSU apparel. Most of us looked ready to cry. One guy even put his head in His hands. I’m all for having honest talks with my children, but this is a bit much. We’re all about ready to burst. The entire town is being punished for the horrific actions of a few men. Just thought you’d find this intriguing as I know you’ve been following this issue.”
She’s right. I did find it intriguing and maddening. It’s another case of the wrong people being punished for the sins of others.
It’s an epidemic in our culture.
My friend’s sadness and that of others stems not from anything football related but from the appalling nature of the issue itself and a profound sense of loss for the victims. The outside pressure is only making a horrible situation worse.
Penn State officials could improve things by making what I think is the clear and correct decision to take down the Paterno statue. University officials say they will make a decision in a week to 10 days.
They shouldn’t hesitate that long. Do it now. Do it today. Right now that smiling image haunts. It’s a touchstone for anger, a gathering point for angst. Nothing good can come of it being there.
Others are already erasing or ending visible ties to Paterno. According to the Associated Press:
1. Paternoville, a tent city outside Beaver Stadium where students camp out for prime football tickets, was scrapped in favor of Nittanyville.
2. Nike took Paterno’s name off a child care center on its corporate campus the day the Freeh report concerning the Sandusky matter was released.
3. The halo that had floated above Paterno’s head in a State College mural was removed Saturday. In its place the artist added a blue ribbon in support of child abuse awareness.
4. Brown University in Rhode Island, the late coach’s alma mater, said that not only had it removed Paterno’s name from its head football coaching position and a student award, but it’s also reviewing whether to remove him from the school’s athletic hall of fame, too.
5. And a Connecticut middle school said it would paint over its own mural of Paterno.
6. Although there was some negative reaction to Paterno immediately after Sandusky’s arrest — the Big Ten dropped Paterno’s name from the conference championship trophy where it had been next to that of Amos Alonzo Stagg, who won almost 100 fewer games — the pace has picked up since the Freeh report was released.
The statue at Penn State has to be next.
It’s a no-brainer.
And just maybe it will help take some of the pressure off the innocent thousands who work at Penn State and live in State College.
At least I hope so.
UPDATE: An interesting idea from my friend at Penn State. She’s not so sure the statue should be removed. Her thoughts:
“One of the best ideas so far is this, instead of taking down the statue, add the quote: “I wish I had done more.”. Then beside the statue, build a memorial to the victims of child sex abuse. This evokes thought, instead of taking down the statue and throwing away the issue. Show people the regret and what he did. Just a thought. Then of course the university should clean house, starting with the board of trustees and add transparency to their institution.”
It’s an idea with some merit. But when I see the smiling face of Joe Paterno on the statue I’m not quite so sure.