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November 14, 2011

The Penn State Mural and the Cover-Up of Jerry Sandusky

Four days after the arrest of former defensive line coach, Jerry Sandusky, and a few hours before the announcement that head coach Joe Paterno would be “relieved of his duties,” Penn State took decisive action, further distancing themselves from the child abuse scandal by painting Sandusky out of a well known mural in State College.

Instead of blotting out the figure – leaving an unseemly white splotch where Sandusky once sat – the artist has painted him out of the picture, rendering an empty chair with a blue ribbon on its seat.  The vacant space of the chair memorializes Sandusky’s absence – calling attention to itself in an otherwise crowded image. Consequently, the new mural simultaneously represents an effort to revise history (the institution’s detaching itself from an infamous figure) and an awareness of implications of that act.

By leaving the space vacant instead of painting in a substitute figure, the mural tacitly acknowledges the Sandusky cover-up without seeking complete erasure.  The inclusion of a blue ribbon is also a gesture of recognition, “a memorial to children who have been touched by abuse and neglect, and a reminder that everyone has a job to do to prevent the maltreatment of children.”

Penn State’s act of spatial revision is reminiscent of a controversy in 2010 at the University of Texas regarding the re-naming of a building whose namesake had ties to the Klu Klux Klan.  Both instances highlight the difficulty an institution faces when coping with an ignominious past/figure, and Penn State’s decision to leave a vacant seat (especially with the blue ribbon in Sandusky’s place) seems like a responsible compromise.

Given the student body’s response to the firing of Joe Paterno, the university’s swift action against Sandusky’s visage was likely a wise move (to avoid defacement), but it remains to be seen what will happen regarding those figures whose complicity is less clear-cut.  In terms of responsibility, the legal situation remains hazy, yet as columnist Kelly Scaletta points out, the incident calls into stark contrast the difference between legal and moral responsibility.  Scaletta argues that “every action… in defense of Paterno is an action against” Sandusky’s victims.  As such, what are we to make of the image below: a sign outside the stadium of Penn State’s first game after Joe Paterno’s firing?

Through these murky waters, the question emerges: will the scandal surrounding the cover-up overshadow the contributions of the administrators involved? Should it lead to their removal not just from the university but from the mural as well?  Is Sandusky the only villain here?

– Cate Blouke

(photo 1: Tribune Media. 2: Sean Simmers/The Patriot-News. photo 3: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

  • 0merus

    Interesting use of the weasel in this painting.  Considered generally a sign of “purity” in art, that it was placed directly behind the man seems ironic.

  • WordSmith

    To me this entire fiasco has absolutely NOTHING to do with the accomplishments of Joe Paterno, the university or anyone else.  This is about pedophilia and the sexual abuse of children – PERIOD.  Some I know (okay – all men) who are “reserving judgement” are now grappling with Sandusky’s latest statement to Bob Costas: “I shouldn’t have showered with those kids.”  Who the fuck showers with other people’s kids?

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  • Anonymous

    The Pro Molest Protesters are just silly jocks.

  • karen h.

    I just noticed the child’s handprint on Sandusky’s knee. Bizarre. 

    Of course, it’s a sort of hindsight interpretation, but even the little girl with the umbrella seems to be trying to tell us something. 

    • Aurora

      …eery how the handprint on the leg is left in as a ’shadow’ on the arm of the chair.

  • Thomas Gokey

    I think it’s a brilliant move to paint an empty chair. Inspired really. It’s not just a tactful way to deal with the scandal, it’s a genuinely artful way of dealing with it. Indeed, the empty chair is, artistically speaking, by far the most interesting thing in the whole painting.

  • Anonymous

    Who are all the people in the mural? Of course I recognize Paterno but is that McQueary behind where Sandusky was painted out? Should all the people remain in the mural if they are involved in the child abuse case?

  • Progressive Mom

    Penn State didn’t paint over the mural.  It didn’t ask for the repainting.  The artist made the decision and selected the ribbon after (he says) he was contacted by a victim’s  mother.    Please see the article at:

    The artist has been working on this mural for 10 years and it includes some of his own family members, victims of 9/11 and others in the community.

    There’s lots to be read into what’s happening in State College, but there’s no Penn State- directed “spatial revision” here.  PSU saved that for the Schultz Child Care Building — the signage has been disappeared.

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  • Tinwoman

    It’s an ugly painting by an untalented artist.  Meh.

    Can’t they hire better muralists these days?

  • Guest

    Cate Blouke, how about doing some research before you print lies!  The decision to remove Sandusky and ad the blue ribbon was made by the artist, not Penn State.  This mural was not sanctioned by the university and is not even on campus.  The only ties to the university are that SOME of the images on the mural are of people from the Penn State community.  After hearing of the allegations against Sandusky and receiving an email from one of the alleged victims mothers the artist decided to alter the mural.  This article is another example of the half a$$ed reporting that has surrounded this case from the beginning.

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