Enshrined while alive

If you’re Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer, do you still want the Joe Paterno Award, as best college football coach in the country?

Not so much. Beamer decided to put it in a drawer, out of sight.

This angle in the Penn State story made me think about SPJ’s controversial decision to stop giving a Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award because of comments she made about Israel and Zionists. (To be clear, I am not comparing Thomas’s comments to Paterno’s apparent dereliction of moral duty.)

A group of SPJers tried to revive the Thomas award, but a majority of delegates at last year’s national convention rejected the proposed reinstatement.

I was part of that group trying for reinstatment, and believe it was wrong for a journalism group – committed to and respecting of free speech – to get rid of a lifetime achievement award solely because of comments the namesake made while she was a columnist and later a private citizen.

But I’m not mentioning the Paterno Award and the Thomas Award here to dredge up that debate (which had passionate, well-meaning people on both sides).

Instead, amid the Penn State scandal, I am reminded of an important issue: naming awards, buildings and so on after living people. We have no guarantees they won’t sully their names later in life, and where does that leave us?

I wrote about this in a column for the September/October 2010 Quill, before Thomas made the second round of comments, which led to the end of the award named after her.

I asked: “Should awards (or anything else of note) be named after people?” Also: “Consider the Postal Service, which says: ‘No living person shall be honored by portrayal on U.S. postage.'”

I suggest that SPJ consider the same approach as the Postal Service – before there is a next time.

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