There Shouldn’t Have Even Been a Joe Paterno Statue to Take Down

Let's wait five years after a "legend" dies before hiring the sculptor.

On a baseball road trip a few years ago, my dad and I were walking around the concourse at Kansas City’s Kaufman Stadium when I noticed a center field statue of Frank White, the Royals’ star second baseman from the 1980s. About two minutes later I saw … Frank White himself, sitting in the studio as part of the pre-game show. I remember thinking at the time what a boost it must be for White, to walk by a giant statue of himself on the way to work every day.

Therefore, I was sad to hear last year that White had experienced a falling out with the Royals organization, for which he played for 17 years and worked for most of the two decades since, after he was fired from his TV job. White has vowed to never again set foot in the stadium where he played for his entire career, and while the statue will remain, it will be an everlasting symbol of the estrangement of the organization from one of its all-time greats.

I thought of that during the debate over whether or not to tear down Joe Paterno’s statue at Penn State, before it was ultimately removed on Sunday. Both situations have led me to the conclusion that statues just shouldn’t ever be built of people who are still alive.

The Penn State scandal taught us many valuable lessons, and among them is that idolatry of larger-than-life individuals can be dangerous, and that even those who appear to be our biggest heroes may not be all that they seem. Therefore, we should all agree to only build statues of people once they have been deceased for five years. That way, awkward situations—and even worse—can be avoided.

In America, and especially in sports, we canonize people way too early and way too easily. Most baseball stadiums built in the past 10 years, including Citizens Bank Park, have been surrounded by statues of all-time great players, including some who are living (in the Phillies’ case, Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton, and Robin Roberts was still alive when the ballpark opened). In Minneapolis, a statue was even built of iconic 92-year-old sportswriter Sid Hartman; seeing the statue on a visit last year led Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King to conclude, erroneously, that Hartman had passed away.

Outside of sports, Americans have mostly avoided naming things and building statues of people who are still alive, at least until the movement arose to name everyone and everything after Ronald Reagan. Statues of living political figures are more associated with Saddam Hussein and other third-world despots, which I would consider a good thing. There is no statue anywhere in the United States, to my knowledge, of Barack Obama, although one was erected near where he grew up in Indonesia. The only known George W. Bush statue is in Albania, while the world’s lone Bill Clinton statue is in Kosovo, a country he helped liberate.

I’m sure seeing the Paterno statue come down was traumatic for Penn State fans and especially for the coach’s family. But the whole situation could have been avoided—well, it could’ve been avoided a whole lot of ways, but one of them would’ve been to not have built the statue while the coach was still living.

Besides, if someone is present for the unveiling of their own statue, it can lead to unfortunate situations such as this:

Of course, Rocky can stay. He’s fictional.