Sports statues in the new Bronze Age

Our new motto: "Give me statues of your tired, your poor, your huddled masses of athletes …" Drew Litton/ESPN.com

It's hard to pinpoint precisely when statues of sports stars became the way for teams to say "I love you" or just do some serious showing-off. But it is possible to nail down exactly when the impulse went overboard. Last week, Auburn's Cam Newton became the clear-cut demarcation line. The place where no one had gone before.

Even if you already had a personal policy about other sports plagues like the personal seat license or in-game bratwurst races at baseball games, now you need a policy on sports statues, too.

Auburn has announced it has commissioned a nearly 10-foot statue of Newton, its one-year-and-done star quarterback, to be displayed alongside previously ordered likenesses of Bo Jackson and Pat Sullivan. This, on the heels of cross-state archrival Alabama just unveiling its 9-foot bronze of coach Nick Saban, which came only weeks after another SEC rival, Florida, dedicated a statue to 23-year-old Tim Tebow and three others. The Tebow statue caused some consternation, but not because it might be a little soon to so honor a person who left campus only a year ago. No. People are feeling sensitive because he's depicted running rather than throwing the ball with his bad-but-evolving mechanics. (Think draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. is to blame?)

Saban has been on the job at Alabama for only four years, the equivalent of one recruiting class. Yet for winning a national championship, he now enjoys the same status on Alabama's Walk of Champions as Tide legend Bear Bryant. The recently graduated Tebow is so beloved at Florida (if not necessarily in the executive suites of new Denver Broncos president John Elway) that school officials in Gainesville probably will bronze a pair of the underwear he's just started endorsing and then bolt them to the side of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, right next to the plaque of Tebow's famous "Promise" speech, as soon as Tebow hints at rolling out a pair of drawers featuring the Gators' mascot.

Still, Auburn has set a new, perhaps never-to-be-surpassed standard with its statue of Newton.

The school is plowing ahead even though the 21-year-old quarterback just left campus -- what? -- maybe five or six minutes ago for next week's NFL draft. Unlike Tebow's case, there is a pending NCAA investigation hanging over the Auburn football program regarding whether Newton's father tried to shake down boosters for $180,000 or other illegal inducements during Newton's recruitment.

Auburn, though, keeps proceeding as though it's cocksure that the Heisman Trophy and national championship Newton just won are not in danger of being revoked someday.

"Cam Newton was eligible in every game in which he played while at Auburn University," says Kirk Sampson, Auburn's assistant athletic director for media relations. "He had one of the greatest individual seasons in college football history and won the Heisman Trophy, and we are honoring and celebrating that tremendous accomplishment. We do not have concerns about timing because, as even the president of the NCAA has said, there was no wrongdoing on Auburn's part in its recruitment of Cam Newton."

But sculptor Harry Weber offers a cautionary tale for Auburn. A little more than a decade ago, Weber was commissioned by St. Louis Cardinals then-owner Bill DeWitt to make a statute of shortstop Ozzie Smith to join the other Cardinals Hall of Famers that Weber had cast and that now sit in a group outside the new Busch Stadium. Noting that Weber was nearly 60 years old at the time, DeWitt decided he wanted to keep the look of the stadium's statue garden consistent. So, Weber says, as he was making Smith's statue, DeWitt told him: "We know Mark McGwire is a slam dunk for the Hall of Fame. Why don't you go ahead and do that one, too."

I know -- you laugh. But do you think anyone at Auburn is listening?

Not long after that, of course, McGwire made his reputation-destroying appearance before a congressional committee looking into performance-enhancing drug use in baseball. Every year he's been on the ballot, his Hall of Fame vote total has fallen further away from the three-quarter majority needed to get in, and it's unlikely now that he ever will.

So where is that McGwire statue now?

"Wrapped up like a mummy and sitting in the basement at Busch Stadium," Weber says.

So the statue might never see the light of day. But at least McGwire, now the Cardinals' hitting coach, can go down to the catacombs and talk to himself when, say, Albert Pujols takes another 0-for-4 collar, right?

"No -- and McGwire might not recognize himself anymore anyway," Weber says, referring to how the slugger's body has shrunk since he quit juicing. "I remember when they gave me the measurements for him when I was doing the statue. I couldn't believe it. Back then, one of his thighs was just an inch smaller than my waist."

Is it just me, or didn't giving someone a statue used to feel rarer, different, more discriminating and important? Didn't persuading someone to cast you forever in bronze use to require a bit more gravitas -- not just one good BCS Championship Game? And anyway, especially in Newton's case, what's the rush? Isn't getting a statue an honor more reasonably reserved for folks who have stood the test of time? Aren't statutes for people like Einstein and Gandhi and Shakespeare --- not Urban Meyer, perfector of the spread offense and the occasionally churlish news conference?

Not anymore.

A partial list of actual worthy sports statues unveiled in recent years includes Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Josh Gibson, Bud Selig, Chick Hearn, Lou Brock, Bobby Orr, Vince Lombardi, Earl Campbell, Pat Tillman, Roberto Clemente, Joe Paterno, Earl and Tiger Woods, and Arnold Palmer.

But there are bandwagons popping up everywhere. In San Francisco right now, there's an ongoing debate about whether another steroids bad boy, Barry Bonds, deserves a place among the statues of Willie Mays and Willie McCovey at the Giants' ballpark. In Boston, there are complaints that Celtics great Bill Russell doesn't have a statute yet. George Steinbrenner's family gave fans at Yankee Stadium a wall-sized memorial to "The Boss" that dwarfed the ones for Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and the other greats already in Monument Park. One of the jokes ricocheting around New York was that the plaque is so over the top, it shows up on weather satellite photos of the Bronx.

Apparently, retiring numbers or raising a banner to the rafters is passé. Nowadays, real affection is measured in 1,900-pound chunks of bronze that -- in the case of Newton, anyway -- might eventually rival McGwire's statue for the record for world's largest paperweight. Yet Auburn has shown not a scintilla of worry. "Honoring our past greats is an important part of our tradition at Auburn," athletic director Jay Jacobs wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to Auburn supporters.

There's something confounding, riveting, even perversely funny about the way Auburn defiantly marches to its own beat on all things Newton, as though the thought of what NCAA investigators might find isn't half as scary to them as the spectral possibility that Bama or Florida recruiters might beat them out for the right to sign and warehouse the eighth-best offensive tackle in the state if Auburn, too, does not have a sculpture garden.

Weber and Omri Amrany, who is one half of the classically trained husband-and-wife team that has created numerous iconic sculptures such as the Michael Jordan statue outside Chicago's United Center, have both noticed a strong uptick in sports teams or college programs commissioning statues. They suspect it's exactly for the reasons you might think.

"I'm glad they're investing in publicly displayed art, but some of these franchises see other people doing it, and they just think, 'We want some statues, too,'" Amrany says.

"There's an arms race going on among a lot of these sports people, but it's especially true right now in Southern football," Weber adds. "I think it's all just part of the instant-celebrity, instant-veneration thing America has going on."

The nutshell version: If a little ostentatious self-promotion is good, more is better. But hey, enough about me. What do you think of me? Behold!

"Cam Newton, indeed," says Catharine Stimpson, a professor and dean emerita in the College of Arts and Sciences at New York University and, for four years before that, the director of the MacArthur Foundation's fellows program, or so-called "genius" grants.

"Any society has to be very careful of what I call 'premature memorialization,' especially if the memorial is a big, fat, boring, wasteful statue or building or road," says Stimpson, who considers herself a sports fan as well as an oft-amused observer of the culture of sports. "People [eventually] forget who is being memorialized. The name comes to mean nothing. Symbolically, birds defecate on the memorials. Later, they fall down or are pulled down. It would be nice if tasteful buckets were placed around the statue of these inflated athletes and coaches. People could put contributions into them to pay for scholarships for nonathletes or intramural gym facilities for students who simply want to play a game for fun."

Fat chance.

Florida and Auburn officials have said the latest groups of statutes they've commissioned cost more than a half-million dollars, and all of it was paid for by private donors. Let someone else fund the science lab.

Like Stimpson, Weber has a wry view of sports' new Bronze Age, even if it's kept him very busy. He tells a story about the first time our misplaced idolatry for sports stars struck him. As a child, Weber loved a St. Louis Browns catcher named Clint "Scrap Iron" Courtney so much that one day he waited for Courtney to come out of the stadium, then breathlessly asked "for the only autograph I've ever asked someone for in my life." His hero, according to Weber, "put his palm on my forehead and pushed me down so hard I fell to the ground as he said, 'Be a kid.'"

"How great is that?" Weber adds with a laugh. "I thought, 'Wow. You're just as awful and ornery as I always heard you were.'"

Auburn and other statue-crazed sports teams might not be listening. But they can't say they haven't been warned.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.