November 10th, 2011
12:26 PM ET

Penn State grapples with conflict over coach's firing, horrific allegations

With feelings running high on campus after the firing of Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno and the university’s president, a debate is raging about where the focus should rest in the scandal.

The Happy Valley family is dealing with raw, conflicting emotions sparked by child rape allegations that threaten to shatter the reputation of a great football coach as well as the school’s image.

The expulsions of Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier capped another chapter in the fallout from charges against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

On Wednesday night, the man who had been at the helm of the iconic football program for 46 seasons was greeted by cheers befitting a father figure viewed as the face of the university.

Except this was no football celebration. It was like a farewell to an era as Paterno spoke to members of the crowd, who clutched phones and waved their arms in the air.

"What can I say, I'm no longer the coach," Paterno told about 15 students gathered outside his house late Wednesday. "It's going to take some time to get used to. It's been 61 years."

The crowd chanted that they loved Paterno. Some of the students, many of whom came to Penn State because of its storied football program, apparently weren’t sure how to cope with news of the famous coach's firing and the allegations of what happened.

iReport: In praise of Joe Paterno | Student, parents shocked by allegations

But Paterno, known for being hard-nosed when it comes to education, seemed to feel he needed to temper the mood of the students, telling them to go home and get some sleep. “Study,” he said, as he peered from the walkway of his home.

Chants of “We are Penn State,” the rallying cry of the school, could be heard in the background.

In the town of State College, that phrase has taken on a new meaning Thursday. And it’s one some of the students are fighting to protect -  especially after the scene on campus quickly changed overnight: Students spilled into the streets. A news van was tipped over.

Then massive crowds swarmed the Old Main, the former administration building. Things by all accounts got out of control.

While those scenes are played over and over again on TV stations across the country, many students say they don't want those images to define them.

Hundreds may have flocked to Paterno’s home or to the grand bronze statue that towers over the campus, but they represent a small percentage of Penn State’s 35,000 undergraduate students. Some, including T.J. Bar, the student body president, said they want to change the focus of this debate from the emotions of football to the seriousness of the alleged events.

In some ways, at University Park, the campus is divided.

Some still mourn the loss of the almost godlike coach they have grown to love. Others are struggling with the heinous allegations.

The question of how the campus should move forward was at the heart of an editorial in the campus newspaper The Daily Collegian:

“Wednesday night was an embarrassment for Penn State. This is about more than Paterno and Spanier. The way students reacted set our university two steps back," the editorial said. "Penn State does not need to be put in a worse light than its leaders already have. The spotlight was on Penn State last night and we only drew more negative national attention to the Penn State name. The national media did not come for the students, but they stayed because we put on a show.

"The emotions brought on by the night varied from somber and respectful to angry and unlawful. This is not what Joe would have wanted.”

But it is what unfolded. And it’s also what students are trying to change in the wake of the scandal that rocked the campus.

“I think the emotions kind of run the gamut in terms of Joe Paterno,” Bard said. “I think a lot of students are obviously in support of Joe Paterno, but I also think a lot of students are realizing there may be more to this story than we realized. At the end of the day fundamentally what matters most is that justice is found for victims and their family and they can truly find some closure after this.”

Dave Cole, a junior studying journalism and political science at Penn State, who grew up in State College and whose parents both teach at the school told CNN’s iReport that he thinks there’s a mix of anger about how the events unfolded as well as who should be blamed.

“People I think initially are very angry at the University for firing Paterno. I think that there are a lot of people that wish that more of the blame was being levied on Sandusky right now,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of animosity toward the media and the role that the media played in framing Paterno in this. A lot of anger, sadness and frustration in students.”

Bard said many students feel the story isn’t just about saving the reputation of a mighty football program. (The financial implications of the scandal may be heavy.) It should be about the alleged victims and the investigation of what took place on the campus.

“I think a lot of students are realizing that due to the national media coverage there’s been a huge oversight of the victims and their families in all of this, and I think students are getting very, very frustrated that this is more than about a football program or a coach - this is about the victims and finding justice for them at the end of the day.”

Daniel Johnson, a 23-year-old business student who was at the rally Wednesday night, told CNN's iReport the scandal has “tarnished everything we students have come to be proud of here at Penn State.”

Johnson said he rallied at the Old Main, not just in frustration about Paterno's firing, but in support of the alleged victims and as a cry against what he fears happened to them.

“We are not responsible for the decisions made by school officials, who at the end of the day are Joe's bosses. We firmly believe that Joe would never turn a blind eye to something as sick and disturbing as this, had he known the full extent of the situation,” Johnson said. “... We pray that the victims can find a way to move on from this and find peace.”

Bard said that a candlelight vigil was planned for the alleged victims as well as a slight change to this weekend’s football game. Instead of the traditional “white-out” in which the entire student body wears white in support of the Nittany Lions, students are encouraged to participate in a “blue-out.”

An unofficial Facebook page encouraged fans to wear blue "to support the victims of child abuse worldwide. The Blue Ribbon Campaign against child abuse began 22 years ago and is recognized across the country.

“In addition to being the color of our team's home game jerseys, blue represents the color of bruises that have too often been neglected,” the post said.

Bard said he hoped this weekend’s game would be a chance to change the tide.

“It’s not about a football program; it’s not about a coach. … (It's) about moving forward,” he said. “This is a crucial point for this student body to really be able to move forward, unite together and remember the pride that really is involved in Penn State.”

That's a sentiment that Cole couldn't agree with more. He also  hopes that this moment can be turned into a major turning point for the school.

“I think that the image of this university is as low as I can ever imagine it being. I think that bouncing back from this will be difficult. I think that my first impression of the decision is that it was for cleaning house and fixing the image as soon as possible. ... I think that how we bounce back is very important,” he said. “What a few thousand students did last night unfortunately speaks out as what the whole 40,000-student body did. I think that there needs to be a way to get out the message that these actions do not speak for the whole body.

"The nation and the media need to see Penn State not as a violent student body, but as a minority of the students who did it out of anger and that was not the way to demonstrate that.”

soundoff (1,613 Responses)
  1. uncled

    There seems to be a misunderstanding perpetuated by a hungry media. Allow me to try to clear some things up.
    The Penn State community is angry and its anger is not misplaced. The community is angry because the lynch mob of morality preachers sit behind their computers and judge an entire university by the actions of a few undebatably disgusting individuals. The Penn State community was known for academic excellence and school pride that is, yes, based somewhat on what has been cultivated by a school employee and football coach who has done an immense amount of good for the university and community, as well as academics and sports as a whole, over the course of 6 decades. It seems to be the agenda of most to generalize the actions of the few to condemn the character of the many. This is unjust and unfounded. Penn State is a school like countless others across the country where thousands have worked tireless hours to be better people, contribute to society, and engage in academic pursuit to further their livelihoods and better community. I understand that this situation stirs up a lot of emotions but it would be prudent, fair, and logical to reserve judgments of all parties involved until the all facts are gathered and presented, and blanket judgments about a school and its students should be avoided.
    The PSU community is also angry and, more so sad, because this has not been the case. Too many in the media and general public have scrambled to collect their pound of flesh and cast the first stone without investigating the facts. Joe Paterno, of all parties involved, deserves the consideration of the avoidance of a knee-jerk reaction fueled by emotion. The facts are, he went to the campus police as a third-party privy to undefined information about a friend of his for 30 years who was not a university employee at the time. It is easy in hindsight to characterize heresay as fact. He has admitted he fell short. But that meeting led to a police investigation of 3 years that seemingly fell by the wayside due to lack of evidence. While it is difficult to not point fingers in this situation, I encourage you to take the time to make sure you are pointing them in the right direction. Many people are to blame, not just Joe Paterno. Yes, he needed to go, if for no other reason than to bring the focus back to where it should be. If there’s more to come, let’s cross that bridge when we get there.
    The board decided to fire Paterno over the phone. Meanwhile, the school let Tim Curley take a leave, Gary Shultz resign, and Mike McQueary keep his job. And through all this, the real perpetrator and the victims have been lost. The community is mad because when you search for the scandle, Paterno’s picture comes up. Not Sandusky or a mention of support for the victims. This situation has become an opportunity for further destruction rather than an opportunity to fix what is broken and bring light to the real issue. People are calling for an end to the football program and in some cases the university when that would do nothing but take away what so many bright individuals who don’t deserve your distain have worked their entire lives to achieve.
    So yes, clean house and punish all those responsible. But make sure that’s the case.

    November 11, 2011 at 12:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • Weasel

      Well said. How come we aren't hearing much about McQueary, who claims to have walked into the locker room and witnessed first hand Sandusky anally raping a 10 year old? Why didn't he stop it right then and there? Why is OK for him to report it to Joe, but when Joe reports it he didn't do enough? I've also read that Joe didn't have a clear idea of what McQueary was reporting. Based on Joe's track record, I feel pretty confident that he wouldn't allow this type of thing to happen. Let us all postpone our judgement and hate until all the facts are in and we know what really happened and who said what to who.

      November 11, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Report abuse |
  2. sanjosemike

    Please help clarify this for me: Did this coach actually abuse children himself, and/or did he "ignore" and fail to stop abuse occurring under his watch? All three? One or two?

    I see no difference between this and Bernard Law, who is presently being protected by the Pope from US prosecution. Please tell me how this is different in any way, except that this coach is not a friend of the Pope?


    November 12, 2011 at 9:56 am | Report abuse |
  3. fay ruujin

    time for all sports people to stop using the phrase "this (football, etc.) builds character", when obviously sports builds false gods and the wrong priorities for life.

    November 12, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Greg

    Sham is the shame. Penn State honored and held benefits for Jerry's Love shack of horror. Did Paterno know? Yes. Fans wore blue so they could got to the game with a small act of attrition. Which pedophile are the funding with these proceeds. And if you care thought giving was so great; why didn't you give them the money you paid for your ticket. The Scholastic Achievement before Athletics that Penn claimed but they worship a football coach and put an idol for which to worship. People want to deflect stuff off Paterno onto McQueary but they share the same bed. Who hired McQueary and kept him of staff all the years? Who made the call on whether to keep the rapist's secret? Joe while his loyal lapdog, McQueary, followed along.

    November 13, 2011 at 8:38 am | Report abuse |
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