Students from Penn State University clashed with police last night but not for the reasons that UC Berkeley students seeking to occupy Sproul Plaza. Enraged at the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno, thousands of Penn State students stampeded down the streets of downtown State College, tearing down lamp posts, overturning a television news van and chanting Paterno’s name and nickname, “JoePa.” Students threw rocks and firework at police in riot gear, who responded with pepper spray.
Other students stood around the statue of Joe Paterno outside Beaver Stadium and sobbed.
Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier were fired on Wednesday night by the university’s Board of Trustees, in the wake of the arrest last Friday of Jerry Sandusky, a long-time assistant on Penn State’s powerhouse football team. Sandusky has been charged with 40 criminal counts of sexually abusing 8 boys in the football facilities of the university, over a period of 15 years. Timothy M. Curley, Penn State’s athletic director, and Gary C. Schultz, its interim senior vice president for finance and business, had already stepped down earlier this week and face charges of perjury and failing to report the child-abuse allegations to the police. Paterno and Spanier have not been charged with any crime but have been deeply implicated in the scandal, Paterno because of what he says he knew, or did not know, about allegations of abuse of a boy in 2002.
Relatives of the alleged victims have been deeply upset by the riots. The sister of a boy who was 11 when Sandusky allegedly molested him in one of the school’s showers says:
— “I’ve been going to minimal classes, because every class I go to I get sick to my stomach. People are making jokes about it.” Others, she said, have coined the verb “Sanduskied.” You can imagine the context.
— The young woman also says that the scenes in State College, Pa., last night of students rioting in the streets because they’re angry about Paterno’s firing, mean that “if there was any pride left at PSU, it’s gone now.”
“I’ve just been really upset about it all,” she added, “because a lot of people aren’t focusing on the victims in this. And instead they’re focusing on other things, like football.”
Penn State students proclaimed it unfair that Paterno has been drawn into the scandal:
“I think the point people are trying to make is the media is responsible for JoePa going down,” said a freshman, Mike Clark, 18, adding that he believed that Mr. Paterno had met his legal and moral responsibilities by telling university authorities about an accusation that Mr. Sandusky assaulted a boy in a university shower in 2002….
“We got rowdy, and we got maced,” Jeff Heim, 19, said rubbing his red, teary eyes. “But make no mistake, the board started this riot by firing our coach. They tarnished a legend.”
Students — some of whom said they needed a way to vent their anger — attacked and overturned the TV van because of anger at the media, whom they accuse of tarnishing Paterno’s name by dragging him into the scandal. Aerospace engineering student Paul Howard said “Of course we’re going to riot. What do they expect when they tell us at 10 o’clock that they fired our football coach?”
Howard’s comments capture the emotional fervor and passionate loyalty that students feel about college sports. They also reveal how deeply the whole Penn State community, including faculty, have associated the prowess and reputation of the Nittany Lions with the university’s fortunes. Says the Chronicle of Higher Education:
Since the scandal broke on Saturday, events have accelerated, and the quickened cycle of revelations and recriminations has been reflected in classrooms. On Monday morning, students talked a bit about the news, said Donald E. Heller, a professor of education. By Wednesday, he said, students in the hallway were asking what the scandal might mean for the university and the quality and reputation of their degrees. Alumni were asking the same questions, he said….
Some faculty members have said the scandal has rocked them to their core. While scandal has soiled other campuses, where athletes have been arrested or been paid by boosters, some Penn State faculty said they once took comfort that the motto of their football team, “Success With Honor,” had helped to burnish the university’s image.
But no more. “I would kill for this to be about tattoos right now,” Mr. Manuel said, referring to the revelations that football players at Ohio State University had sold memorabilia in exchange for discounts on tattoos, which led to the resignation of the team’s head coach, Jim Tressel.
It’s an open secret that college sports are a big, big, big business in the US. As the defensive coordinator for the football team, Sandusky played a huge role in its successes on the field and, accordingly, in the acclaim (and donations) Penn State has garnered.
If Curley and Schultz did lie, as is alleged, in an apparent effort to cover up Sandusky’s behavior, the attempted cover-up makes perfect sense. They were reacting in much the same way most other Penn State athletic officials have long dealt with the outside world.
They withdrew into the comfortable cocoon Paterno wrapped around his program.
For reasons both logical and illogical, the coach has long been obsessed about sheltering his Nittany Lions team, as if it were a wartime army.
Practices are closed to the media. Assistant coaches are off-limits. Reporters have virtually no access to players. Information – think of Paterno’s long-secret salary – is locked away.
A decade ago, for example, when The Inquirer did a lengthy series on the growing influence of money in college sports, Penn State jealously guarded information – such as the dollar amount of its contract with Nike – that other schools, schools with less-upright reputations, readily made available.
The rest of the world will know want to know what else went on behind the blue and white curtains in central Pennsylvania. The Inquirer even says that the very “reputation for integrity that Paterno and Penn State developed has been a shield of sorts” that has “deflected criticism and potential problems” and that, most of all, has been “Penn State’s currency” with which “the school bought the confidence of recruits and, especially, their parents.” Now the shine on that currency is dullened, and darkened.
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Photo of statue of Paterno by nviziondotnet