Penn State community wonders: What's next?

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 10, 2011 

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — As students, faculty and alumni process their feelings of shock, sadness and betrayal over a child-sex abuse scandal in the school's legendary football program, the Penn State University community is beginning to ask: What comes next?

A week after allegations of child-sex abuse by a former assistant football coach, head football coach Joe Paterno, one of the most beloved figures in college athletics, and the university's longtime president, Graham Spanier, are gone.

Prosecutors are building their case against former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who's charged with sexually abusing at least eight boys over a 15-year period. The alleged victims were from disadvantaged backgrounds and participated in a charity program Sandusky founded.

And the university and the community have no idea what's next for a football program that Paterno built into a national powerhouse. State College has a population of 42,000, but Beaver Stadium has 107,000 seats, and the local economy depends on filling them.

Penn State regularly ranks among the nation's top universities in football revenues, and Paterno was a major fundraiser for the school. The State College region, nestled among rolling hills in central Pennsylvania, is nicknamed "Happy Valley" for its collegiate atmosphere.

"It's hard to earn a good reputation, and it's hard to lose it," said Scott Kretchmar, a professor of sport science at Penn State who's written about ethics in college sports.

But student leaders and elected officials said Thursday that justice for the victims should come first, and that the student anger that spilled into the streets over the dismissal of Paterno doesn't represent the university.

"We are full of questions. We are eager for answers. And we will not stop until we get them. But we cannot allow our anger to dominate," said student body president TJ Bard.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett called those who rioted Wednesday night "knuckleheads."

Student leaders now plan a candlelight vigil Friday in honor of at least eight young men who allegedly were victimized by Jerry Sandusky. They're also encouraging students to wear blue at Saturday's game against Nebraska to call attention to child sexual abuse.

"If there's any place in the world where we're supposed to be standing up for kids, it's here," Kretchmar said.

Students said they hadn't even begun to contemplate what the scandal means for them.

"I'm not sure its historical importance has sunk in, but I think for now it's important we stay focused on the victims," said Dan Florencio, president of Penn State's interfraternity council.

The school's troubles cast more negative light on intercollegiate athletics in a year that's seen a variety of scandals from Miami to North Carolina to Ohio and cost coaches and administrators their jobs. But unlike those scandals, which involved gifts, cars, tattoos and prostitutes, the Penn State problems take college sports scandals to a new level.

"What's the tipping point?" asked John Thelin, a University of Kentucky professor who's written extensively about college sports scandals. "When is enough enough?"

National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert said Thursday that the NCAA would investigate what happened at Penn State.

"The NCAA will defer in the immediate term to law enforcement officials since this situation involved alleged crimes," Emmert said in a statement. "As the facts are established through the justice system, we will determine whether association bylaws have been violated and act accordingly. To be clear, civil and criminal law will always take precedence over association rules."

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which met in Washington last month, said it would review the latest scandals and issue a new set of recommendations to the NCAA.

Thelin called the Penn State scandals "sobering and a shame," but he said incidents at other schools could come to light.

"If this can happen at a place that is known to be pretty above board, it shows the likelihood that presidents aren't in complete control," he said. "These problems could surface anywhere, and could surface more and more."

The Penn State scandal has drawn Washington's attention, too.

On Wednesday, hours before the university board of trustees unanimously fired Paterno and Spanier, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said his department would investigate whether Penn State violated the Clery Act, which requires university officials to report sexual assaults that take place on campus.

Thursday, the state's two U.S. senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey, announced they were withdrawing their support for the nomination of Paterno for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Paterno faces no charges, but he may have failed to report an alleged sexual assault by Sandusky on a young boy.

"In light of the recent events in State College, we are rescinding our support for the nomination of Joe Paterno for the Presidential Medal of Freedom," they said in a joint statement. "We should turn our attention to the victims of these atrocious crimes and ensure they get the help they need. Our hearts and prayers go out to them and their families."

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., a Penn State graduate whose district includes State College, said that Sandusky's alleged victims and the students of the university were more important to worry about.

"The focus should not be on Joe Paterno's nomination or politicians trying to distance themselves from him," he said in a statement. "It's about the victims and the future of Penn State."

The White House also weighed in Thursday.

"If the allegations of what happened up there prove true, what happened is outrageous," said Jay Carney, President Barack Obama's press secretary.

Advocates of major reforms in college sports hope that rather than creating a lot of feel-good talk by well-meaning university leaders, the Penn State story will spur real action.

"Maybe some good will come in the aftermath, but we're in for a hard ride," said Thelin, the University of Kentucky professor.

Penn State administrators and faculty leaders declined to return calls Thursday about the scandal's potential impact.

For their part, Penn State student leaders said they know there may be more bad news for the school, but they'll stick by it no matter what.

"Whatever happens, I know that Penn State students love this school and are going to be united in supporting it," said Brendan McNally, the student representative on the State College borough council.

(Cliff White of the Centre Daily Times contributed to this report.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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