Consecrating Albert Pujols, Joe Paterno and Other Sports Figures: Why to Wait

Patrick LairdCorrespondent IDecember 28, 2011

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.

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 home run record, a guaranteed first ballot Hall of Famer. All for a player barely in his 30s. 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.

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 some no longer, well, feel loyalty towards.

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.