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. Guest

    The rioting students of Penn State are only serving to deepen the shame of Penn State: Penn State and its staff and students can join the Catholic Church as experts in conspiracies of silence and cognitive dissonance.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Report abuse |
    • UNDEAD

      It's revolting that even now Penn State is more worried about their reputation and football revenue than the victims pain and suffering.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:32 pm | Report abuse |
    • UNDEAD

      The military has been shooting at the wrong folks.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Report abuse |
  2. localdelii

    A university should promote ideals of free thought, exploration and discovery past, present and future to elevate the human condition, but these students can't see beyond the end of their noses: America takes another step backward. Go occupy Wall Street or protest the University's cover-up or the violation of children—make yourselves useful for once in your coddled, selfish lives. Paterno is out; he can get a lawyer if he isn't happy with the decision. The obituaries, as the saying goes, are full of irreplaceable people and that includes coaches.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  3. aq

    Given a choice to act with class or become a mindless mob- they choose the easier route. Very sad...

    November 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • LetsGetReal

      If they "acted with class" you would not be reading about them. Their message would be a side note on this terrible story. There is much more to the story then is being reported here. Like the DA was brought previous allegation of molestation years *before* the incident where the coach knew about. He was a scapegoat and the board was angry that announced his retiring before the board rendered their decision.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Andrew

    The problem Penn Staters have is that Joe was judged, convicted and executed in the court of public opinion. We feel that he wasn't given a fair shake to explain his actions before everyone started calling for his head. Penn State is frustrated with the media coverage on Joe when the coverage should be about the victims, Sandusky, Curley and Schultz. We are angry that Joe was fired and Curley, the man charged with the cover up, still works at Penn State. We are furious that the university did not do enough to stop the abuse, or prepare for the fallout from the investigation.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  5. blunt

    “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.”

    yeah, I'm sure the rioting we saw last night was all about the victims and not the image of the school and football program – I'm sure we all believe that....

    November 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Fla. Lawyer

    You know what's funny? I was initially so shocked and disgusted about the allegations and how it was handled that I wanted everyone to be punished because it seemed like the right thing to do. Now I'm not sure. Call it sympathy for the devil, if you will, but when I put myself in Joe Paterno's shoes, assuming the details as reported are true, I'm not sure I would've handled it any better. I mean, imagine you just found out this guy you know and think well of is alleged to be a child molestor. You might think, "God, can that be true? Never in a hundred years would I have thought that about him." And you might think about what happens if this goes to the cops without further inquiry. Just being accused of that kind of crime can ruin a person's life, whether they did it or not. And being human and thinking, "I dunno, I don't think I can make this call," maybe you'd be tempted to refer it up the chain to wiser heads than yours, or at least people in positions of administrative power, to look into the details to make sure this was no lie, rumor, or exaggeration, confirm the story, and go to the authorities. Passing the buck would make you feel better, because you did something, and you did it without being in the ugly position to decide whether to call a man you know a child molestor or let him go on abusing children unchecked if it's true. It's someone else's responsibility, someone you might convince yourself is in a better position to determine what's going on, someone more experienced with handling this kind of thing. And when you don't hear back, maybe it's easy to believe they looked into it and found there was nothing to it. Again, it's not the right thing to do, and hindsight being 20/20, he may realize it shirked some responsibility, at least in the failure to follow up and say, "Guys, why aren't you doing anything?" But still, it seems like a perfectly human mistake, just with horrifying and tragic consequences.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chip

      Well put. I believe 90% of the journalists who are now pontificating that they JoePa did the wrong thing would have done the same.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kiki

      This story was told to him by someone he trusts enough to become a right hand man (mcqueary) . He knew it was true and testified that he knew something very bad was going on and still did nothing while this guy continued to use a charity for at risk children to groom victims. He is the kind of enabler men like that need to continue offending.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
    • eatme

      Why didn't Paterno fire his friend? He kept him on, and sheltered his activities. Paterno is guilty as well.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chad

      @ eatme

      Sandusky no longer worked for Paterno so how can Paterno fire him. You can be outraged if you want but please get informed before you go off on your little rant.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Report abuse |
  7. redfish

    In the end, this is the penalty for illegal use of hands,using a tightend as an ineligible reveiver,no more.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Audri

    Really? Thanks Penn State for supporting those poor boys that were abused. You should be thanking GOD you weren't one of them.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Pittsburgh Mike

    Paterno is guilty of not doing what he has preached. His is responsible for this. he is bigger than anything at PSU because they let him be bigger. Ya wanna be the big Dawg you have to make the big calls.

    He didn't

    People got hurt

    I'd hate to have to live with that

    November 10, 2011 at 1:24 pm | Report abuse |
    • LetsGetReal

      You obviously don't know all the facts. Read up on it. Joe Pa reported it up the chain. However, the people their already had heard about previous allegations and the DA empaneled a grand jury and then decided NOT to press charges.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:34 pm | Report abuse |
  10. SAM

    I wonder when the Child Endangerment charges will come against Paterno. He'll also undoubtedly be named in the lawsuits by the victims' families. And he has now been fired "with cause", which will void his retirement. All because he did not call police when he had every responsibility to do so.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Denver

    There is a civil suit in the works. Hopefully for a settlement at least one of the kids have thought about being able to shove a newly cut cactus branch where the sun don't shine on a weekly basis!

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

    Where should it rest? Really??? Anyone who knew and did not act/report the molestation of young children should be fired. Period!

    November 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  13. DianeL

    That the university chose to ignore this back when it happened is not a surprise to me. All types of crimes are not reported by universities so they can save their "image". Victims are pressured to keep quiet or are made to feel like it was there fault, witnesses and others who report what they heard to school officials are told we'll deal with it, then nothing gets done. Until these schools are punished for not reporting crimes and actually taking a more active roll in investigating every report of a crime nothing will change. The media glare of Penn State make just make the next school think before they don't act on a crime and someone will be saved because someone spoke up.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
  14. scott

    the rioters of Penn State should be expelled on the grounds that they are complete idiots. Shame on you! If Joe knew about this and looked the other way he should hang... period! America needs less cowards and more people willing to stand up for the innocent.

    November 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Report abuse |
    • Chad

      The key word is IF. All we know for certain is that Paterno passed along to his superiors (one of which was head of the campus police) what he was told. From that point on we have no idea. If he turned a blind eye then i'm with you but lets say he told his superiors and they said they'd look into it. Then either Paterno asks them about it again or they come back to him and they say, "Hey Joe we looked into it. We're all good." For all Paterno knows it was a false allegation. I'm not trying to support Paterno. I just think its a little to early and we know very little about what happened after Paterno told his superiors.

      November 10, 2011 at 1:52 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Datch

    Yes. Because in this country, football is, and always will be, more important than children. I am more ashamed every day to be American.

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