Jeff Swensen / Getty Images
The statue of former Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno stands outside Beaver Stadium on July 12.
By NBC News staff and wire services
Penn State University will remove the famed statue of Joe Paterno outside its football stadium, eliminating a key piece of the iconography surrounding the once-sainted football coach accused of burying child sex abuse allegations against a retired assistant.
"The statue of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium has become a lightning rod of controversy and national debate, including the role of big time sports in university life,"?Penn State President Rodney Erickson said in a letter explaining the decision.?"I now believe that, contrary to its original intention, coach Paterno's statue has become a source of division and an obstacle to healing in our University and beyond."
NBCSports: Penn State president orders Paterno statue removal
Construction vehicles and police arrived shortly after dawn Sunday, barricading the street and sidewalks near the statue, erecting a chain-link fence then concealing the statue with a blue tarp.
The statue, nearly seven feet tall and weighing more than 900 pounds, was built in 2001 in honor of Paterno's record-setting 324th Division 1 coaching victory and his "contributions to the university."?
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The university said it would take down the larger-than-life monument in the face of an investigative report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh that found the late coach, along with three top Penn State administrators, concealed the abuse claims against Jerry Sandusky more than a decade ago in order to shield the university and its football program from negative publicity.
Target for critics
The bronze sculpture outside Beaver Stadium has been a rallying point for students and alumni outraged over Paterno's firing four days after Sandusky's Nov. 5 arrest -- and grief-stricken over the Hall of Fame coach's Jan. 22 death at age 85.
MSNBC's Thomas Roberts talks to Michael McCann, Legal Analyst and Columnist at Sports Illustrated, about the deal Joe Paterno worked about with Penn State prior to his departure from the University.
But it turned into a target for critics after the Freeh report's stunning allegation of a cover-up by Paterno, ousted President Graham Spanier and two Penn State officials, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz. Their failure to report Sandusky to child-welfare authorities in 2001 allowed him to continue molesting boys, the report found.
Erickson admitted that the school had made mistakes in its handling of the affair, and said the university had become more aware of the issues of child abuse as a result of the scandal that engulfed the school.?
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"With the release of Judge Freeh's Report of the Special Investigative Counsel, we as a community have had to confront a failure of leadership at many levels," his letter said. "I believe that, were it to remain, the statue will be a recurring wound to the multitude of individuals across the nation and beyond who have been the victims of child abuse."
Paterno's family, along with attorneys for Spanier, Curley and Schultz, vehemently deny any suggestion they protected a pedophile. Curley and Schultz await trial on charges of failing to report child abuse and lying to a grand jury but maintain their innocence. Spanier hasn't been charged. Sandusky was convicted last month of 45 counts of sexual abuse of 10 boys.
NBC's Bob Costas says Joe Paterno's reputation can never fully recover from the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, and now the NCAA plans to step up their investigation.
Some newspaper columnists and former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden have said the statue should be taken down, while a small plane pulled a banner over State College reading, "Take the statue down or we will."
But Paterno still has plenty of fans, and Penn State's decision to remove the monument won't sit well with them. One student even vowed to "chain myself to that statue" if there was an attempt to remove it.
Three men claim abuse by Sandusky in '70s or '80s
University officials had called the issue a sensitive one in light of Paterno's enormous contributions to the school over a 61-year coaching career. The Paterno family is well-known in the community for philanthropic efforts, including the millions of dollars they've donated to the university to help build a library and fund endowments and scholarships.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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