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. Neutral

    The is not the whole university who are pedophiles!!!

    November 10, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Report abuse |
  2. malcolm in St Louis

    Football programs and sports departments are becoming a law unto themsleves. Their players and coaches think the normal rules and mores do not apply to them.

    Now even the rest of the student body is embarrassing itself by supporting the enabler of a serial pedophile.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
  3. coast

    Joe Paterno reported the information he had about the "alleged" abuse. Yes folks, it is only "alleged" at this point. I think his firing was premature.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Joe R.

      The abuse may have been alleged, but Joe and others reported it to the wrong people. The alleged abuse is an alleged crime – NOT a work-related incident like being late for a meeting. For failing to contact the police those who were a part of that should suffer the consequences.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Report abuse |
    • Marlena

      Yes, it was only alleged abuse but that wasn't the point. No matter what is reported to the police, it's "alleged" until they investigate and have the evidence to make an arrest. Paterno had a moral responsibility to make sure that an allegation as serious as this was sent straight to the authorities and completely investigated. He didn't. Instead he chose to do the bare minimum and wash his hands of it after the university did nothing. He is, by far, not the only person at fault here but he deserves consequences just like everyone else involved.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • MacGeek

      I agree however Paterno didn't turn a blind eye on the situation. He did what he was supposed to do under law and he's not being charged as a criminal. He's listed as a witness. They should have let him coached the remaining season.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Asleep in Minnesota

      In addition, there is a higher standard when there is abuse. If anyone, no matter what their role, knows about abuse, as instructors/professors, etc. they also have the MORAL obligation to ensure that the proper authorities are called in and that is NOT the Penn State higher ups. They were more interested in garnering funds for their program than giving this information the attention it deserved. On top of that, they lied – even JoePa – about what he knew. His statements have been flip flops. Not good.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Report abuse |
  4. ed

    There is nothing more disgusting than a pedophile, put them all in jail. PRONTO!

    November 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
  5. David M

    There is not a single point of focus. There were breakdowns at every level and they each need to be addressed. But this is the result when people are no longer concerned enough to step up and confront problems when they occur. Had some of these alleged adults been responsible enough to do that, a lot of kids would have been spared. But they didn't. It all goes back to Al Gore's infamous line that there as "no controlling authority". And in some cases there is not controlling moral authority. We are seeing the results of that.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • lucy2

      I agree, David. So many people up the chain of command failed those kids, starting with the person who actually witnessed one of the assaults all the way up to Spanier. If just one had broken ranks and told the proper authorities, things could have been very different.
      I honestly don't understand how someone could witness such a horrible thing and not try to stop it, or at the very least run and get the police (the real ones, not campus). And then in Paterno's position, if someone came to me and told me they'd witnessed such a thing, my instant response would be "go to the police immediately"! I just can't understand that mentality, of trying to sweep it under the rug and keep it contained. It would have been a scandal for sure, but nothing to the scale that it has become.

      November 10, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Richie

    Grapple! Really CNN? Could you have used some better terminology?

    November 10, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
  7. CMD

    These rioters are clueless.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Dan

    It's frightening how many of our college students are not capable of moral reasoning higher than a 3rd grade level. A psychologist by the name of Kohlberg built his reputation on his 6 levels of moral reasoning to measure one aspect of maturation in thought processes. The position taken by many of these students in defense of Paterno suggests level 2 or 3 moral reasoning - and that's scary. Oh well, seeing how they're all going to be unemployed for about 10 years after graduating anyway ...

    November 10, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • ranch111

      There are two failed parents behind every student that rioted.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Respect

    The people that rioted and are defending him are no different than Michael Jackson fans. Read this carefully:

    He was COMPLICIT in the molesting of children. He's Michael Jackson. Why are fans so rabid anyway, Penn State has not done anything in football for years.

    It amazes me that fans would riot to protect a guy complicit in a child molestation case, but not riot when real injustices happen. Pathetic.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
    • Steve

      You are wrong in comparing him to Michael Jackson, you can compare Sandusky to Michael Jackson, but Paterno never molested children. If that is your thought process then lets get the Pope to step down too.

      November 10, 2011 at 2:53 pm | Report abuse |
  10. JS

    I can't imagine how awful the parents of the victims felt to see that the protests were about football and not about their violated children.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Weatherbrain

    i got news for you all – Penn State is through – the fallout from this horrid tale of lengthy malfeasance – loss of funds, sales, lawsuits, status (both academic and athletic) , will last for decades. The school will never recover from this – not in this generation. Maybe 150 years from now. For now its done. when the indictment's details become well known, more than it is now, when the pattern of cover up is exposed and all those charged are tried, when the Board of Trustees is investigated , and it will be, you can say goodbye to Penn state. It may lose its accreditation. That's how horrible this story and list of atrocities are. ANY state, STATE school, that this can happen in – this is a state school not a private school, ANY State school that has allowed these actions to proceed unreported to police for this long, is done. It's just that simple. Unless the school makes their FOCUS, sole and absolute, the victims and helping them, they are over and done with. This is not Iraq or Afghanistan where these crimes are not crimes but ways of life. This is America, and Penn state has betrayed its sovereign values to the core. As Paterno now says "Pray for the victims." How right he is. And instead of saying "Honor before football" the headline should have read "Better late than never."

    November 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • ranch111

      It will be the school for pedophiles Change the mascot to the Penn State Pedophiles.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Report abuse |
    • Asleep in Minnesota

      Also add that the Feds are looking at crimes that are worthy of Federal Charges. Why Federal? Financial Aid loans and Pell Grants, which many of these students receive, gives them the right to come in and to determine whether any Federal funds were used by Sandusky in any way. That's in addition to any probe by the FBI for these unspeakable crimes

      November 10, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chad

      Why would the Board of Trustees be investigated? The police and the DA office have already done their investigation and have currently concluded that only 2 people broke the law in covering the crime up. This does not excuse the actions of Paterno but it seems to me that you are letting your understandable disgust and anger at Sandusky and the idiots who covered for him override your good judgement on Penn State as a whole. Now don't get me wrong, i'm not a Penn State alum or a fan but your opinion that Penn State might as well shut down (which is what I got from your post) is just stupid. A handful of people turned a blind eye and you want to hold all the students, faculty, and employees accountable. That's just rediculous.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. GODZILLA1

    If true then Penn State's football program deserves the death penalty from the NCAA.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • Asleep in Minnesota

      I think the NCAA will be the final blow. So far, it has remained silent as there is a criminal investigation going on. It cannot comment on ongoing legal matters. But, believe me, once they can say something, it is going to be swift and brutal. Death Penalty plus forfeiture of wins.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:12 pm | Report abuse |
  13. je78

    How dare these people choose to promote their love of sports over the safety and protection over children..... I challenge these people to read the grand jury report on the assult on these children and still feel the same way- these people disgust me to the core.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
    • ranch111

      They can't read. That's the problem.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ranch111

    Idiot students. This is America, where a stupid football coach is revered over the safety and welfare of children. It's shameful.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  15. James

    The guy hasn't actually called a play in 15 years. Do you notice how he doesn’t even have a head set? In any case, he should have said something and the university did the right thing. It's damage control – they would be taking a lot of heat from former victims, churches ect. if they didn't do this.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:05 pm | Report abuse |
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