Consecrating Sports Figures: It’s Best to Wait

by Patrick ‘Rey’ Reynell

Prior to hearing Brutus’ rousing speech about the validity of Julius Caesar’s murder in the Roman Capitol, a plebeian suggests that Rome should “Give him [Brutus] a statue with his ancestors!” Those familiar with Shakespeare’s play know that this venerable request comes much too eagerly following the morally ambiguous murder of Caesar. Two acts later Marc Antony laments on the good intentions of Brutus, who lay dead after his own suicide.

Great intentions – poor decisions.

Good thing the commons avoided that awkward moment of returning to Rome with a massive reminder of Brutus’ misguided judgment awaiting them.

That awkward moment, however, has not escaped some famous athletes and institutions this past year. Usually a professional athlete’s consecration of his or her accolades comes in the form of a bust for the Hall of Fame. Such an honor only comes after the athlete’s career has concluded and sometimes, an athlete’s choices play a role (see Pete Rose and Mark McGwire).

Nowadays sports fans can find statues outside most arenas and on campuses all around the country, many for players and coaches not yet retired but indeed still very active.

Surely before this year the national consensus on Joe Paterno, former Penn State head football coach, was that he’d be immortalized as one of the most morally upstanding coaches in all of sports. Not only a coach, but a “humanitarian” as his statue outside Beaver Stadium states. For some, that has changed.

No matter which side one’s opinion may fall, it is hard to dispute that Paterno’s legacy has been altered by the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse allegations. That statue, once thought to be for a man who would retire with the utmost respect of all sports fans, now serves as a symbol of hypocrisy to others.

© 2011 Tornoe Ink – Rob Tornoe. All Rights Reserved.

The issue is not to question or forget the many honorable acts a coach like Joe Paterno has done for many student-athletes, but to question the premature consecration of those who can still reveal flaws. Damaging, consequential flaws. Or maybe not even flaws, but rather just make a mistake. A mistake that seems to outweigh all other great decisions.

Much like Brutus’ case in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, statues can serve as a means to express loyalty while a person is still serving. It’s always unsettling when a deserving athlete has to be posthumously inducted into a Hall of Fame (see Ron Santo and Dennis Johnson). And, just as in Brutus’ case, how awkward would it be to erect a god-like statue when that loyalty is not reciprocated.

Look no further than St. Louis. After winning his second World Series title with the Cardinals this past season, Albert Pujols entered free-agency as the most coveted player in years. Nine time all-star; three time NL MVP; a legitimate threat to break the all-time homerun record; a guaranteed first ballot hall of famer. All for a player barely in his thirties. And all for a player who has done it in one uniform.

An anonymous donor from the St. Louis community decided it would be best to show St. Louis’ loyalty to Pujols by paying for a 10-foot bronze statue to sit outside Pujols’ restaurant. Ironically, the statue was unveiled after the 2011 season.

A security guard protects the Albert Pujols statue outside the Pujols 5 restaurant in St. Louis. (Photo: Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Pujols ultimately signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim leaving some fans in St. Louis feeling betrayed. As if the statue won’t be a hurtful reminder of what a record-breaking career could have been in a St. Louis Cardinals uniform, just think of this Cardinal fans: What hat will Pujols decide to don upon his bust’s consecration into the Hall of Fame? Was this a mistake on Pujols’ part? Should his loyalty to the Cardinals have outweighed his business decision?

Regardless, Pujols’ decision makes it all the more awkward for Cardinal fans to revel at a 10-foot bronze mammoth that they some no longer, well, feel loyalty towards anymore.

Paterno and Pujols certainly aren’t hardened criminals or oppressive dictators who deserve their statues to be torn from its supports like Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq. It’s not that their flaws or mistakes (if you even consider them such) should result in some kind of sacrilege of what their statues should represent from their careers.

In fact, try to find two sports figures more philanthropic than these two. It’d be difficult to do. Mistakes? I think we all know Paterno would do things differently. Flawed? Some might now think so about Pujols. But both also certainly have a litany of great choices and benevolence beyond what any would expect.

No, the issue lies with why society feels the need to prematurely idolize sports figures. We know great players and coaches will eventually receive their due respect in some form (retired jersey, Hall of Fame bust), but to erect a statue of a man not yet completed with his career seems selfish and misguided.

Man is not flawless; for that reason, a statue should try to sanctify the closest form of ethics and performance in mankind. Much like religions and nations do for their pioneers and vanguards.

If St. Louis values unbridled loyalty, perhaps retiring Pujols’ jersey number or putting his name in the stands would have sufficed after his retirement from baseball.

Perhaps if Penn State had waited to honor their beloved coach upon his retirement, they would have been content with the library bearing Paterno’s name and maybe added it inside the stadium as well.

A statue after all is an artist’s rendition of a person in his or her absolute perfection, whether it be as a coach, player, president, or activist. The only problem is that man is not perfect and may simply give fodder to those who wish to only focus on flaws rather than endearing qualities.

Ultimately, it would be wise to wait and choose more carefully. Allow each and every man to complete his athletic journey and then decide if he is worthy of such a sacred, prestigious sculpture.

6 Responses to "Consecrating Sports Figures: It’s Best to Wait"

  1. Rey   December 28, 2011 at 3:02 am

    This one’s for you, Casey. In the course of briefly and barely researching for this, I came across Vince Carter’s statue. Yes – Vince Carter has a statue. It’s in front of his high school and his mom bought it for him. Not the high school, but his mother. Best of all, his statue is wearing a suit holding a basketball. I figured that’s because most of his NBA career has been watched in a suit on the sideline. Either that, or the original draft for the statue where “Vinsanity” is wrenching in pain rolling on the ground was denied by mommy. For your viewing and unintentionally funny viewing pleasure:

  2. Casey   December 28, 2011 at 9:52 am

    My reaction to the Carter link rivaled the laughter I had at John’s Oh Caption comment yesterday (John you now have a responsibility to add levity to the Pine).

    A more fitting pose might have been Carter posting up 18 feet from the basket with the caption: “Don’t worry guys. I got this one. I’m going to “surprise” them by running iso.

    Is there a reverse Oedipus reference any where?

  3. Casey   December 28, 2011 at 10:38 am

    You got me thinking of statues and which ones make sense. During our visit to the Magic Kingdom over Thanksgiving weekend I saw Walt and Mickey. NOt sure when they erected that one, but it makes sense.

    In Pittsburgh, there’s a statue of Clemente outside PNC Park. Yeah, that one works.

    I haven’t forgotten the one in New York Harbor. Seems to work although Lou Reed gave it a different name:

  4. Casey   December 28, 2011 at 10:39 am

    I’m trying to imagine if the Cards and Angels meet in the World Series.

  5. Gino   December 28, 2011 at 10:50 am

    That Vince Carter statue is donning a nice suit.

    oh and I also like the fact that the Pujols statue has to be guarded in plain daylight.

    On to the serious points:
    If you wait till they’re retired where do you set the line? Is it just retired or wait till they’re dead? Just saying there’s a lot of stuff that can be done while people are alive.

    Maybe this is going to the absurd, but what about if a guy like McGwire was already in the Hall of Fame when a lot of stuff got to the light of day?

    What if JoePa retired 10 years ago? And today we know what we know.

    I get that your point is that by waiting you mitigate a lot of the current issues, which is true. But there are issues that you’ll never be able to account for. Skeletons just hate being in closets!!!

  6. Rey   December 28, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    No clue what the line is, Gino. For me, I think statues for sports figures has a whole “golden calf” feel for it to me. The line is completely subjective. BUT – I don’t think a statue for a guy still in his profession merits any validity. I like naming things after people for one. Camden Yards does something cool: they have huge numbers outside.

    I think since I’ve been there they’ve actually added statues, but they had numbers for Robinson, Ripken, Murray and others. That’s a cool idea and not over the top to me as giving everyone a statue. There are some weird statue choices out there, too. Chick Hearn and Haray Caray. Really? Don’t get it. Tim Tebow has a statue AND an excerpt from a press conference at Florida. Danny Wuerfal and Seve Spurrier also have statues I think. Great players, yes, but statuesque? I don’t think so. You have to be transcendent in some way, like beyond the game.

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