Monday, July 23, 2012

3 comments Without Statues, How Will We Discuss Important Social Issues?

Jeff Pearlman recently wrote a column for CNN about why Penn State should keep the Joe Paterno statue. I generally enjoy Pearlman's writing. I have read three of Jeff Pearlman's books and have enjoyed all of them. What I find interesting about Pearlman, and I've noticed this following him on Twitter, is that he comes off as a very self-conscious writer. There's not necessarily anything wrong with that. It could just be me, but I feel like he demonstrates he cares what people write or say about him, which can't be said for many other writers who tend (pretend) to shake off criticism easily. Some people probably find this endearing in some fashion and others find it annoying, while I find it somewhat interesting because few writers will openly admit criticism has hurt him/her in some way.

So Jeff Pearlman thinks Penn State should keep the Joe Paterno statue in order for society to have a way of discussing child molestation. To tear down the statue, says Pearlman, would be to sweep the Paterno-Sandusky story under the rug. I don't think statues have very much to do at all with whether we continue to discuss child molestation in a public fashion. This Joe Paterno-Sandusky-Penn State saga is going to be widely discussed even if they tear down the entire university. That's just how it is, so whether the statue gets removed or not seems irrelevant to furthering the discussion on child molestation.

Over the past couple of days, I've listened with mounting frustration as people debate whether Penn State University should remove from its campus the 900-pound bronze statue of Joe Paterno, its once-legendary football coach.

I don't think the Joe Paterno statue looks that much like Paterno. The glasses look pretty accurate, but otherwise it looks way too much like my grandfather for my tastes...and he didn't look anything like Joe Paterno. My point is that this is a statue meant to honor Joe Paterno and may not serve a purpose to society outside of this.

It's as if, to the folks who demand action, taking away a metal JoePa would serve as another blow to the real JoePa; one last spear in the heart of the fallen hero

The folks who demand action aren't trying to serve another blow to Joe Paterno, they want to remove a monument to Paterno that stands on the campus. A statue at a university has unspoken meaning to people. It says, "This person is important, served this university well, and he/she should be honored for their contributions to the university." So those demanding action don't want to serve as a blow to JoePa, they just don't want to continue viewing a monument that seems to celebrate him and his legacy. His silence towards child molestation is now a part of his legacy that some people do not want celebrated.

Sadly, it just doesn't work that way.

It very well could work that way if Penn State decides to take the statue down.

As much as I have come to abhor Joe Paterno's indifference and arrogance and self-serving loyalty (to himself and his image and his stupid little football program), I fail to see how digging out a statue does anything but conflict with (what should be) one of the most important elements of higher education:

Not honoring people with statues when this person has a hand in allowing the molestation of multiple children over a multi-year span?

Open and honest and intelligent dialogue.

The Joe Paterno statue doesn't have anything to do with the open and honest and intelligent dialogue about child molestation. This dialogue can start and continue with or without the Joe Paterno statue. The statue serves as a reminder of the greatness of Joe Paterno, and it is not a symbol that allows open dialogue to continue. If Penn State tore down the Paterno statue the world wouldn't immediately forget about child molestation and the dialogue would continue and even continue to prosper. The statue is a symbol, not a dialogue-starter.

Were I in command of this decision, not only would I make certain the statue stays, I'd surround it with flood lights and fireworks and hire Flavor Flav to hype its very presence. "Come one, come all! Camp out! Bring classmates! Observe the bronze Joe Paterno! Debate away!"

Using the idea that a statue, or a symbol such as a statue, is the best way to start and further a discussion on important social issues, wouldn't it make sense to build a statue of other people who have perpetuated atrocities throughout time? We want to talk about prejudice and the horrors of genocide? Let's build a statue of Adolf Hitler in Washington, D.C.! We want to talk about child molestation? Then build a statue of Jerry Sandusky and have nightly discussions around it. It sounds absurd, because it is absurd.

My point is these discussions can happen without a statue. That's why the idea of removing the Joe Paterno statue would in some way also inhibit the child molestation discussion seems ridiculous to me.

Truth be told, the last thing we (and Penn State) should be doing right now is trying to hide and forget what happened.

This is not the point of removing the statue. The point of removing the statue is to no longer honor Joe Paterno with a statue that stands for the greatness of Joe Paterno. That is what intrinsic meaning statues have and it doesn't stand for mistakes that Joe Paterno has made. When you see a statue of Ty Cobb, you know it is there to celebrate his career as a baseball player and the benefits of playing at a time when he didn't have to face Negro League pitchers (ok, I added that last part). That statue intrinsically doesn't make a representation about Cobb's personal life and what a huge asshole he seemed to be. The same thing goes for a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. When we see a statue of him it is for the Civil Rights Movement and his fight against racial discrimination, it doesn't also serve as a reminder that even the greatest men and leaders are prone to adultery.

You get my point. A statue is there to honor, not create a discussion. The discussion will happen without the statue.

Bronze Joe Paterno needs to remain, because we need to talk about this. We need to discuss ways to stop child abuse. We need to discuss the courage it takes to step forward, especially when it's significantly easier to remain silent.

Then we can discuss it. No statue is needed for this discussion. I'm also not sure how much we need to discuss child molestation. Child molestation is wrong and right-minded people should do anything and everything in their power to stop or prevent it from happening. I guess the how and specific ways to stop child abuse are important, but the legacy of what happens when people keep their mouth shut is a lesson learned from the Sandusky saga and is not taught by the presence of the Joe Paterno statute. His statue reminds us he was a successful football coach.

Mostly, we need to discuss statues themselves -- and what they reflect.

It reflects Joe Paterno made Penn State a lot of money by winning football games and they built a statue as a thank you for making the football team so successful.

The reason Jerry Sandusky was able to perpetrate his evil is because at Penn State (as at hundreds of other Division I schools across America) sports have exceeded academics in importance.

While this statement is true, the reason Jerry Sandusky was able to perpetuate his evil is because Penn State coaches and administration valued the football team over the lives of innocent children. This situation didn't have much to do with academics. It had to do with Penn State protecting their football program and Paterno's legacy. Jeff Pearlman seems upset sports have exceeded academics in importance, so I would think the tearing down of Paterno's statue would be something he would favor. The tearing down the statue would show the importance of social responsibility over the importance of academics at Penn State.

The athletic programs are responsible for large dollars; for large enrollments; for national attention; for eternal glory. They are not to be stopped or interfered with or questioned.

Again, while this is true, this isn't a case of sports exceeding the value of academics in the eyes of the Penn State administration. It's about the football program exceeding the value of children's lives in the eyes of the Penn State administration.

Joe Paterno has a statue for the same reason Auburn University built one for former quarterback Cam Newton (a non-graduate who attended the school for one year) -- because football (literally, the launching of a synthetic oval contraption through the air) exceeds all else.

In terms of making money, it probably does. This is sad, but true.

Why, in 2007, five Penn State scientists (Richard Alley, William Easterling, Klaus Keller, Michael Mann, Anne Thompson) shared the Nobel Peace Prize for their work on climate change issues. None of them have statues (rest assured, had any committed Sandusky-like acts, they would have been turned over to the authorities in minutes). None of them will have statues. Ever.

What if Penn State tore down the Joe Paterno statue and built a statue for these five Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientists? Problem solved.

Bronze Joe Paterno needs to stay because, deep within his metallic eyeballs, there is a story to be told.

Does that story happen to be a story about how he coached for a long time and won a lot of football games? If so, that's the story the statue is telling me too.

Years and years from now, when most of us are gone and this scandal is merely a blip in history, he will hopefully serve as the essential reminder that, once upon a time, we deified people for their ability to win ultimately meaningless and trivial games.

Yes, he probably will serve as this reminder and we don't need a statue of Joe Paterno on the Penn State campus to help serve as the reminder. I don't care if the statue comes or goes, but if it stays then it won't represent a beacon of knowledge about what happens when people keep their mouth shut about crimes committed against children. It will serve as a reminder of there being a statue on Penn State's campus because Joe Paterno won a lot of games as a football coach.

And we paid a dear price for doing so.

Wouldn't you think removing the statue would show that no matter how many wins Joe Paterno has, his silence in the face of knowledge concerning crimes against children is now part of his overall legacy and he no longer deserves a statue on the Penn State campus?

It's weird because Jeff Pearlman rails against colleges favoring athletics over everything else, but then he favors the Joe Paterno statue remaining standing when this statue is a reminder of Penn State choosing to honor Joe Paterno's success in athletics over his actions as a human being. I don't care if the statue stays up or goes down, but if it stays up then it isn't going to further the discussion of child abuse and how we can prevent further child abuse. That statue will serve to show what a great football coach Joe Paterno was at Penn State.


jacktotherack said...

This whole statue issue is such non-sesne. How much solace do you think the victims take in the statue being taken down? The damage is already done, and whether that monument stays up or is taken down isn't going to make a damn but of difference.

This is just lazy, lazy writing from Pearlman. The old "dur, we put too much importance on sports, they're just trivial games" column has been written by thousands of self-loathing sports journalists over the years. How about he come up with an original thought instead of just shitting out some reheated crap about PSU to generate pageviews?

Anonymous said...

^^ My largest problem with writing like this is that it feels like "groupthink codewords." What I mean by that is by trotting out lines like "we put too much importance on sports," "those in charge let athletics become more important than academics," etc. they know they will be accepted by the mainstream. Rather than adding anything to the discussion, they spew out the same tired, repeated lines and they can feel comfortable knowing they are a good person who puts themselves above sports. It's a lot like those who go on that "the NFL needs to do more about concussions," "they need to stop putting money before lives," etc. without adding any constructive ideas or solutions. By going on about the most recent crisis, spitting out pre-abbroved lines they feel good.

Also, on a side (yet related) note, I kind of get the sense that a lot of groups want to make this tragedy about themselves. I think the most disgusting being Rick Reilly. His article about how he was 'duped' in 1986 by Paterno blew my mind. What the hell does something that happened c. 1998 - 2001 have to do with the 1986 sportsman of the year article in SI?!? I guess Paterno should have told him his plans for the late '90s? I mean, it's clear that he'd been insidiously plotting this for a while, a central tenet of that plan being to make Rick Reilly look like a fool 25+ years later when he tweeted something seemingly defending Paterno...

Further, so we're supposed to believe that some anonymous "Penn State professor, calling out of the blue" tipped him off that Paterno was a bad man? I don't believe that one bit... Why was Reilly the only one ever told about this?

Bengoodfella said...

Jack, exactly. I don't think it will make much of a difference to the victims. We do put too much emphasis on sports, as does other countries in the world.

I think he could have taken a different look at this issue in terms of the statue. It was almost like he was using the reasons to take the statue down as to why it should stay up.

Anon, I have never thought of those as "groupthink codewords." That's pretty accurate though. It's a like form of agreeing with the majority without saying anything especially new.

At a certain point in their career, some writers tend to think some things do become about them in a way. This is actually true for many professions. Success gives a person a sort of ego to where they believe things in some way circle back to them.

Reilly was basically saying, "I got fooled too, so no one else should feel bad about being fooled because I am a sportswriter and have access to information you have." While this is true, it does tend to make it more about him rather than the issue at hand. The Penn State saga becomes less about Sandusky and more about that one time in his professional career Rick Reilly got completely hoodwinked by a subject. He looks on it as to how it relates to him, which is very ego-driven.

I don't know if I believe that or not. I read that and immediately believed it, but then thought about it more and I'm not sure if I do. More importantly, I realize Paterno was Sportsman of the Year, which is designed as basically a fluff piece, but doesn't this merit some sort of inclusion into the article? If you are a writer doing a piece on a subject and someone comes to you out of the blue to say what a bad person this subject is, wouldn't you think to find out (a) why the person thinks this or (b) how this can be mentioned in the article? Again, I get that SI Sportsman of the Year is a fluff piece, but this goes back to the blind hero worship the media can be guilty of all while claiming fans are the ones who are guilty of hero worship.