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Dan K. Thomasson: Penn State should remove the statue of Joe Paterno

By Dan K. Thomasson

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Sunday, July 15 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Just when everyone thought the late Joe Paterno's tattered image might still survive the scandal of a former assistant's pedophilia and the disgrace of being fired, it's now clear Penn State University's football coach took a bigger part than previously revealed in the foot dragging that let the scandal develop. Even that big-time winning record might not save his reputation now.

In delivering his report condemning the university's leadership, former FBI Director Louis Freeh said Paterno in particular failed to step in to protect children who were sexually abused by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.

The result of that inaction, of course, was the forced resignation of the university's president and the indictment of two other officials on charges of lying to a grand jury.

The Paterno family and the university face a continuing ordeal in the trial of the two officials and the fallout from the university's own investigation by Freeh, a devout Catholic and father with a hard-nosed, no-nonsense reputation. This guy once fired the special agent in charge of the huge New York field office just before he was to retire, for what many considered a minor infraction, and had him escorted from the building as if it was a perp walk.

Freeh's report included absolutely no ameliorating circumstances in what may be the worst cover-up in the history of American higher education.

In the name of common decency, the new regime in State College, Penn., should remove the Paterno statue that stands so prominently on campus. But that probably isn't going to happen at a place where football has reigned supreme for so long under a coach who clearly had feet of clay.

This entire disgraceful episode — including the inaction that let it go on for some time — is the result of misplaced athletic icon worship far too common at too many college and university campuses where exorbitantly paid coaches reign supreme. Paterno was a figure whose ability to fill the huge Penn State stadium in a remote venue with cash customers year after year apparently had earned him immunity from nearly everything, including being told that it was time to retire. He was a winner in the commercial sense, but obviously not in his moral responsibilities.

When the scandal broke and he was fired, students roared to his defense in a near riot until Sandusky's victims were mentioned. Oops. Things quieted down quickly.

The real heroes of higher education are those who teach, research and pay special attention to the academic nurturing of students, who pay an ever-increasing fortune for their educations. In big schools, only a relative handful of students get any serious guidance from top coaches. They are as far removed as those who cut the stadium grass.

Sam Yellen, a brilliant professor of mine, once wrote a famous short story about the day football died. In Yellen's parody, the game became so big that it required not one but two stadiums to house all those who wanted to attend. (This obviously was before television.) Players would run through a tunnel that connected the stadiums. At one point, things get so confused in the tunnel that one defense ended up playing another while the two offenses did the same. It was a disaster. Yellen's point was that overemphasis inevitably produces a disaster.

So who or what is to blame for the Sandusky scandal, and how much did they choose to ignore? Freeh was blunt in his report, citing the university's leadership, the Post-Gazette said:

"The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized," Freeh wrote. Paterno and the others, he said, showed a "total disregard for the safety and welfare" of the children.

If Penn State's new regime can't bring itself to remove the statue, it should at least be covered up — which seems an appropriate gesture, under the circumstances.

Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan@aol.com.

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