Damnatio Memoriae and Joe Paterno by Matthew Goguen
The following post is written by the most casual of spectators in the recent Jerry Sandusky/Joe Paterno/Penn State sexual abuse scandal. This post does not condone Jerry Sandusky's behavior, Joe Paterno's behavior or Penn State's response to sexual abuse allegations. The purpose of this post is to briefly examine the act of removing a person's name from history using Joe Paterno as a very recent example. Notorious and infamous persons have often had their names stricken from history books for a multitude of reasons. In the past twenty years, this act is very evident in sports. This post is more concerned with the alteration of history than the persons who found themselves altered.
In 31 AD, Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard in Rome was arrested and executed. The reasons for his arrest and execution are still somewhat shrouded in mystery. It is believed that Sejanus was conspiring to overthrow the emperor Tiberius. After being executed by strangling, the body of Sejanus was thrown down the stairs of the Senate where it was torn apart by angry mobs. Anyone believed to be a follower and supporter of Sejanus was hunted and murdered. The Roman Senate issued an order of damnatio memoriae (condemnation of memory) which resulted in the destruction of every statue of Sejanus and his name being officially removed from all public records. In this way, Sejanus only exists as a story, a legend and a name.
In the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal riveting State College, Pennsylvania and arguably the country, a beloved figure is facing similar persecution. Joe Paterno, the longtime Penn State head football coach whose sports accomplishments need no further introduction, is currently having his name and likeness edited or removed from murals, buildings, athletic awards and even an iconic statue.
If you place the removal of a person's name from history at one end of the memory spectrum, you must place the elevation of someone's name and memory at the other end. We are more accustomed to a person dying and seeing their name reach superstar status and solemnity, rather than being stricken from the human record. The deaths of Kurt Cobain and Heath Ledger are two recent examples of death causing a revival in a person's work. Though Cobain and Ledger were very popular figures in their lifetime, they were exponentially championed more after they died. But why do we choose to punish our more nefarious public figures by expunging them from the record? Why should we "forget" Joe Paterno? Does anyone actually succeed in forgetting after "forgetting"?
Joe Paterno / Joe Paterno (Halo) / Joe Paterno (Ribbon)
Twelve years ago, Michael Pilato painted a 100 foot mural at State College, Pennsylvania depicting notable Penn State figures including Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. Because of the allegations and recent conviction of Sandusky, his likeness has been completely removed and replaced by a blue ribbon. The ribbon is a symbol of child abuse awareness, much akin to pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness. The likeness of Joe Paterno has undergone two transformations this year. Following Paterno's death, an angelic halo was added over his head. That halo has since been erased, and a blue ribbon has taken its place on his jacket.
It is the opinion of this author that these three transformations of Joe Paterno represent his public image in three distinct eras. The era of Joe Paterno is 1966 - November 8th, 2011. The era of Joe Paterno (Halo) is January 22nd, 2012 - July 11th, 2012. The era of Joe Paterno (Ribbon) is July 12th, 2012 - ?.
The era of Joe Paterno (1966-2011) is rooted in two national championships and over 400 victories as a head coach: the pride of State College, the head of the Nittany Lions, the coach's coach, and the cream of the crop. This era begins with Joe Paterno being named head coach of the Nittany Lions and ends with the indictment of Jerry Sandusky. The era of Joe Paterno (Halo) is a legendary coach caught in unfortunate circumstances. A man who should've made a better decision, should've done things differently, could’ve done more, etc. This era begins on the date of Paterno’s death and ends with the publication of the Freeh Report. The era of Joe Paterno (Ribbon) is a legendary coach who may have been involved in a large cover up with unknown explicit motives. Saving Penn State face, maintaining the visage of being the rock of a community, all of these are hearsay because of Paterno's physical absence from this earth. This era begins with the publication of the Freeh Report and may last for all time.
How does a community reconcile from this? Does a community reconcile from this? It’s easy as a spectator to comment and discuss the probabilities and nature of "going back to normal" because the spectator does not have to engage in those unfortunate actions. In an example of Pilato's public art mural, Joe Paterno is remembered in three different and simultaneous ways. There will be ardent supporters who will never look to Paterno as anything less than greatness personified, there are those who will think he simply made the wrong decision and there are those who will believe he was a lying criminal with no regard for the well-being of abused children. He is all at once, a saint, a sinner, and the devil, depending on who you ask.
When asked about the changes made to his mural, artist Michael Pilato commented, "As a public artist, you've got to listen to the public and I started to hear the public, and I wish I hadn't put [the halo] up there, to tell you the truth." Michael Pilato has the power to edit and paint new images on his art as he wants to, but what of other bearers of the Paterno name?
Joe Paterno Child Development Center / Child Development Center
Hours after the Freeh Report claimed that Joe Paterno and various higher-ups within the Penn State fold concealed critical information about Sandusky's victims that placed past and future victims in critical jeopardy, Nike made an announcement that they would be renaming the Joe Paterno Child Development Center in the near future. The new name has not been unveiled yet, but it is rather disgustingly ironic that it is a child development center that will be renamed. Nike, which of course is a corporate entity will understandably do what it can to remain in positive light. It is not surprising that they are choosing to rename the center to distance their relationship with Joe Paterno, but will there be anything more? Will Nike remove their sponsorship of Penn State athletics?
Joe Paterno Outstanding Male Freshman Athlete of the Year / Outstanding Male Freshman Athlete of the Year
At Paterno's alma mater, Brown University, the Joe Paterno Outstanding Male Freshman Athlete of the Year is also undergoing a facelift. This year, the award was given to an athlete with Joe Paterno's name stricken from it.
Howard D. Williams '17 / Joseph V. Paterno '50 Football Coaching Chair
Also this year at Brown, the head coach position formerly known as the Howard D. Williams '17 / Joseph V. Paterno '50 Football Coaching Chair has been eliminated. However, according to the university, the reasons are due to issues that predate the Penn State scandal.
Brown University Hall of Fame
Not altered as of yet, but Brown University is also looking into revising Joe Paterno's Hall of Fame status at their school. A decision may be made in September during the Board of Trustees next meeting. His induction in the hall took place in 1977, long before Sandusky's actions are believed to have taken place. This is an instance where Joe Paterno's athletic accomplishments are in jeopardy of being erased due to actions that have nothing to do with his time in a Brown University uniform.
Paternoville / Nittanyville
On Monday, July 16th, it was announced by a Penn State student group that Paternoville, the congregation of students who camp outside of Penn State's football stadium before games, will now be referred to as Nittanyville.
The Paterno Statue / Statua Paterno
In a final threat to the legacy of Joe Paterno, Penn State is being encouraged to tear down a statue of Joe Paterno that stands outside of the Penn State football stadium. Rumor has it that an airplane flying over the college was pulling a banner that read, "Take the statue down or we will." If the statue does indeed come down, it would be akin to burning every photograph of Paterno wearing Penn State colors. Will this make things better? Is it better to remember our failures along with our triumphs? A senior at Penn State named Jeff Taylor offered great words of wisdom in regards to the renaming of Paternoville, "You can't remove Joe completely from history; that's something that doesn't even make sense...we want, at least to...return to normalcy." In addition to Taylor’s comments, the overwhelming sense in State College is to prevent “distractions” from overtaking Penn State’s educational mission. Joe Paterno is currently Public Distraction #1 thanks to the swift justice of Jerry Sandusky. What more of a glaring distraction than the absence of the symbolic Praetorian Guard leading his men to battle. His reputation and visage are now all but cast down the stairs of public opinion, to be devoured and torn asunder.
If Joe Paterno cannot be removed from history, why do we feel it necessary to remove his likeness and his name? The common answer is to distance oneself from the scandal, the bad press, and the hurt feelings. But do these tactics work? It is truly unfortunate that a man as revered as Joe Paterno has now been reduced to mere mortality; a harsh fall from grace as a football titan. But we as a society have been disappointed before, what makes this different?
Can we forget Joe Paterno? The answer is an emphatic no. We cannot forget Joe Paterno no matter how much we try. His image is synonymous with Penn State and football greatness. Rather than destroying the image of Joe Paterno, we should always look at it through the eyes of Michael Pilato's painting: Joe Paterno as saint, as sinner, and as the devil. Joe Paterno, like all of us, does not conform to one set of standards. Joe Paterno was a human being, who was not black or white, but various shades of grey. Sometimes the most vicious of wolves dress in sheep's clothing. The legacy of Joe Paterno will forever be tarnished, but it is not worth being destroyed. If we condemn Paterno, we cannot learn from Paterno. If he is reduced to rubble, he will remain as rubble. There are lessons that we still need to learn. If we act hastily, we will not be able to put the pieces back together. In this way, Joe Paterno will only be a story, a legend and a name.
[Next series next week,
PS. What do you think?
7/28 Memory Day nominee: Lucy Burns, whose international and American efforts on behalf of women’s suffrage, women’s rights, and pacifism exemplified the ideals of the progressive era and movement at home and abroad, then and now.
7/29 Memory Day nominee: Daniel Callaghan, the US naval officer who served in both World Wars and whose courageous and fatal efforts during the Battle of Guadalcanal led him to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor.
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