By Thursday afternoon, College Avenue, which runs along the front of the main campus of Penn State University, was cleaned up. There were no signs of the broken glass and bent lamp posts from the previous evening when thousands of students protested against the firing of football coach Joe Paterno for his handling of a sex scandal that may consume the school’s storied program.
If you could ignore the satellite news trucks and television crews stationed every few metres along the sidewalks, it seemed a normal day on campus as the last home game of the football season approached. Students walking up and down the tree-lined mall that ran beside Old Main, the administrative centre of the university and one of the flashpoints for the Paterno protests, spontaneously showed their school pride. “We are,” one group of students would shout as another group approached. “PENN STATE,” the other would respond vigorously.
However, the events of the past several days were on everyone’s lips, from the arrest of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on sex-abuse charges involving children to the accusations the administration tried to sweep it under the carpet to the firings of university president Graham Spanier and Paterno on Thursday. The common thread was sympathy for Paterno as a man of integrity who may or may not have made a mistake.
There was also puzzlement or outright anger at a world outside of this city of 42,000 that wanted his head on a pike and was seen to have pushed the school’s board of trustees into dismissing Paterno, 84, by telephone after more than 50 years of service and less than 48 hours before the big game against Nebraska. Defensive co-ordinator Tom Bradley will handle the team for that game.
On the other side of the campus, in front of the massive Beaver Stadium, Cassandra Lopez helped her brother take a picture of her nephew Marcos, 3, and niece Lorena, 6, in front of the famous statue of JoePa, as Paterno is known to everyone in this state. As a couple of camera crews scrambled to film the obvious ironic photo-op, Lopez, who manages a downtown restaurant, said she is a Penn State grad from the class of 1989. Her brother is a grad, too, and her mother was part of the class of 1952.
“The man retired,” Lopez said. “This is the last game. He should have had one more run through the tunnel.
“I’m still in shock. Everyone feels horrible for the victims, obviously. But I don’t think the focus is where it needs to be. It needs to be on Sandusky. Why was no one at Sandusky’s house? Not one student, not one camera crew. It was Joe, Joe, Joe. This isn’t about Joe.”
Back across the mall from Old Main, in a book-lined office as far removed physically from the 106,572-seat football stadium as it is philosophically, professor Robert Bernasconi, who teaches ethics classes in the philosophy faculty, shares Lopez’s concerns. He concedes Paterno was the most powerful individual on campus thanks to the reverence for great coaches and that he admitted to at least some wrong-doing. But, Bernasconi says, this isn’t as simple as driving Paterno from a campus where more than one building bears his name.
The key questions are what exactly did graduate assistant Mike McQueary tell Paterno he saw Sandusky doing to a young boy in a locker room shower in 2002 and what information did the trustees have when they decided to fire Paterno?
“What we’re witnessing here is a Greek tragedy,” said Bernasconi, who added he has never sensed the traditional resentment toward the football program from the academic faculty. Not even in the face of a series of arrests of Penn State football players in recent years for criminal acts ranging from public drunkenness to assault.
“[Paterno]became the brand of Penn State,” Bernasconi said. “He is who the students and faculty have looked to for identity. He’s given a kind of moral leadership [to the school]
“That’s why it’s painful and it’s tragic and why students here raise the question of whether the board of trustees acted appropriately in firing him the way they did. I don’t think it’s right to write that obituary until we have the facts.”
Bernasconi is less equivocal about the school’s administration, which knew for years about investigations involving Sandusky.
“Clearly, it’s a complete failure of an institution to perform the due diligence that it needs to do,” he said. “This has been simmering for so long and the university as an institution was unprepared for it.”
As for why some of the students raised their objections to Paterno’s firing by trashing television news vans and lamp posts, freshman Tom Toohig and others say it was youthful emotion gone awry. It wasn’t the actions of a spoiled group of students detached from the reality of the victims.
“It’s tied deeply to football,” Toohig, 18, said. “It’s part of our heritage. When everyone heard he got fired all this emotion kind of erupted. I definitely think the decision was made too quickly and I definitely support JoePa, so I [joined the protest]
“I think protesting itself was not bad but then it got out of hand.”