Bob Ford: Despite removing Joe Paterno statue, Penn State still doesn't get it

Posted: July 24, 2012

The new era of openness and transparency at Penn State continued early Sunday morning when workers erected a fence and draped it with a blue tarp so no one could witness the removal of the Joe Paterno statue that school president Rodney Erickson said had become "a source of division."

They went behind the tarp - the same sort of arrangement used on a racetrack when an injured horse has to be dispatched - and divided the statue from its foundation, trussed it with a moving blanket and plastic wrap, and forklifted the whole deal inside the stadium, presumably never to be seen again.

Erickson said the statue would be transported and stored in a "secure location," lest it be freed by Paterno supporters some Saturday morning and carried into Beaver Stadium, or to prevent whatever mischief the school thinks the presence of a 900-pound inanimate object can cause.

After all these months, Penn State still doesn't get it. The school created this mess because of a culture that believed in doing things behind curtains. Troublesome situations were to be managed. What was good for business was good for the school. What the rest of the world didn't know wouldn't hurt it.

Well, here we are, and what has changed? The fences and tarps and the timing of a monumental shift happening at dawn on a Sunday morning says that very little has changed.

Did they really think that students would drape themselves around the statue and defy the jackhammers like protesters confronting tanks in Tiananmen Square? Were they worried that a riot would break out? The truth is they didn't know how to manage the situation, and that doesn't represent a change, either.

The decision to remove the statue can be debated. It could have been handled in a number of ways. The statue could have been left as it was, accompanied by a plaque that laid out the good and the bad, and the generations to come could have been left to their own opinions. Pretending that Joe Paterno's influence and accomplishments, and ultimately his misjudgments, could be removed with a forklift is ludicrous.

Erickson said the statue, if left alone, would become a "recurring wound" for those who have been affected by child abuse. That wouldn't need to be the case if the statue and that area had been repurposed to serve partially as a reminder of the crimes. That would require the resolve of an institution that doesn't want to erase all reminders, of course.

But whatever the decision was on the statue - keep it, change it, remove it, or, as cynics suggested, just turn it so it looks the other way - that decision should have been made in the open and explained ahead of time. Not surprisingly, that didn't happen.

We know the board of trustees was divided on the issue and we know the board and Erickson had a contentious conference call last week. We know that the board didn't take a vote because of some gobbledygook that it wasn't a formally scheduled meeting and they can't vote except in a formally scheduled meeting and blah, blah, blah. Instead, the board dumped it in Erickson's lap and sat back to dry its hands.

Here's what should have happened: A scheduled formal meeting, with one agenda item only, the Paterno statue. Doors opened. Public and television stations invited. They should have discussed the options. Argued the positions. Taken an open vote and lived with it. That would have been the courageous way to handle it, but the board of trustees still isn't up for that level of accountability.

Erickson made a tough call, but what's his risk? It's not like he can be the worst school president in the last two decades. What was troubling was the timing of it. The statue, after all, wasn't going anywhere. There was no hurry in making the decision, unless the school was trying to soften the NCAA sanctions that are set to be announced Monday morning. That would be in keeping with the philosophy of doing things mostly for appearances. Look, NCAA. No statue. You see a statue here? Nope. All gone.

The NCAA had probably made its own final decision by the time the fence and the tarp went up Sunday morning, but it was worth a try, even if the secretive removal of the statue smacked of old behavior.

The coming sanctions are described as "corrective and punitive," although it's hard to see how they will be anything but the latter, and anything other than the NCAA flexing its muscle just because it can. From the standpoint of the football program, there isn't much left to correct. The previous regime is gone. The new one should be given a fair chance.

As for punishment, the NCAA doesn't like it when one of its member institutions makes the rest of them look bad, and that's the source for what is coming. It will probably cost scholarships and bowl appearances, at the least.

If that's the worst of it, Penn State will still be getting off lightly. Terrible things happened on campus, and more terrible things elsewhere, because nothing was done to stop them. Missing the Outback Bowl won't make up for that.

You can put up a fence and hang a tarp, but there's no hiding why all this is happening. Everyone can still see it.

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