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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)


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