I am one of those crazy Penn Staters. I graduated back in 2002 after four years of telling anyone who would listen that I’d found the greatest place on earth. Over the past nine years, I’ve made the four-hour drive back to my school from Manhattan countless times. It’s almost always for football games.
You know how saddened, sick, horrified and angry you felt when you heard about the Sandusky allegations? I can promise you I felt just as bad. Maybe worse.
I am heartbroken and confused. I’ve shed many tears over it since the news broke. I am devastated for any children involved as well as for their families. But I’m also sad for Penn State and, yes, for Joe Paterno. I’ve cried for him too. I don’t know what to think about what unfolded behind closed doors, but I’m angry at the Board of Trustees for firing him.
And I’m not alone.
This may not be a popular sentiment right now, but it’s a fair one. If you didn’t go to Penn State, I don’t expect you to understand why. But I’d like to give you an idea. This is not an essay in defense of Joe Paterno. I don’t feel that I’m in a position to defend him. This is simply my perspective as an alumnus who believes Penn Staters—Paterno included—deserve some respect from a rather cruel public.
I grew up in suburban Maryland with very little awareness of college football, Joe Paterno, or, even Pennsylvania for that matter. But from my very first day on campus, I was hooked. There is something so special about that place in central PA, smack in the middle of nowhere, aptly coined “Happy Valley.”
From the first freshman orientation, you get a chance to hear from Joe Paterno. All Brooklyn bravado and pants-rolled-up-let’s-get-to-work-and-do-things-the-right-way attitude, he was an instant role model. The definition of dedication with decades upon decades as head coach of the same football team.
Over time, you come to learn that he’s so much more. The benefactor of much of our beautiful campus, he spent millions of dollars making the university into what it is today, while teaching countless football players that what they do off the field is just as important as what they do on it. He lead by example, too, working every year with the Special Olympics alongside his wife, Sue.
There were plenty of chances to interact with him while attending Penn State. I personally saw him at several speaking engagements, on my way to class, and raking leaves outside his modest ranch house not far from campus. Paterno, a.k.a. JoePa, was so revered at the university that his image appears everywhere. I currently have four mugs with his cartoon likeness from Dunkin’ Donuts and the local sub shop, Joegies.
So when I found out that JoePa knew that Sandusky had inappropriate interactions with a young boy, I immediately assumed he must have not heard the whole story. How could such an adored, good, decent man not have done more than simply report it up the chain of command? I still think, whether this is realistic or just my emotional response, that the other coaches may have kept the whole truth from JoePa.
But he fact of the matter is, whether or not he addresses it, we will never know. No one will ever know but Joe Paterno himself.
I am both angry and saddened by the Board’s decision to fire JoePa, not to mention the way they handled it. I saw it coming though: Penn State as an institution may have been beyond repair from a public relations standpoint if they hadn’t. But they were so consumed with just that – the public – that they didn’t even do it responsibly, nor with any respect to the legendary coach, delivering the news by phone.
They had plenty of time to address reporters in person though, holding a press conference after 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night—prime time for angry students to riot. Which is exactly what they did, casting an even darker shadow on a very unhappy valley.
Why not wait until the morning?
Why not take a recess from the court of public opinion and analyze whether allowing a man who did so much for a school, a community, and countless students should be allowed to coach just four more games of college football?
Why not do something about all this back in 2002, when the university was aware of the allegations but did not do more themselves? I think it is highly unlikely that JoePa is completely blameless in this horrible case. Anyone with knowledge of what allegedly went on with Sandusky shares part of that blame. But as the face of Penn State football, he has been thoroughly vilified by a public that doesn’t know the whole story. None of us do but those involved.
I don’t know what I think should be the punishment for JoePa for allegedly knowing about Sandusky and not doing more than reporting it to his superiors. But I do know this: Penn State feels like home to me, and Penn Staters are my family. My college boyfriend (now husband) and I got even married on campus.
We invited JoePa to our wedding.
So every time someone slams our former head coach, it is literally insult to injury. As Penn Staters we feel hurt, personally, by the horrors that have unfolded at our beloved school. But countless people with varying levels of knowledge about the case feel the need to drag his name through the mud even further.
I overheard a woman at my gym this morning say that Penn State should tear down the football stadium and replace it with a huge library. Turns already have one on campus, one that I spent countless hours in.
Guess what? It’s called Paterno Library, named after JoePa for his contributions.
Joe Paterno’s legacy is forever tainted. Let that be enough. And for the sake of those who feel like I do, pray for the victims, speak out against sexual assault and child abuse. Volunteer to help those affected. But stop trashing Penn State. We’ve been through enough.
Here’s to one day restoring our university’s great name. We are so much more than this scandal. We are 570,000 living alumni who are all hurt by what’s happened. We are a lucky, fortunate group, to have attended a school that holds a place in our hearts like none other.
WE ARE … still … PENN STATE.