2011-11-17 / Features

College Football Scandal

For Penn State University, New Week After Worst One Ever

STATE COLLEGE, Pennsylvania (AP) – For Penn State University, there was the past week – a week of unimaginable turmoil and sorrow, anger and disbelief and shame. And then there is tomorrow.

The university has been rocked by a child-sex abuse scandal involving a former assistant football coach and it cost long-time head coach Joe Paterno his job. Now, some students and alumni are wondering what comes next for a proud institution brought low by allegations that powerful men knew they had a predator in their midst and failed to take action. What should the community do now?

“Our best,” said 19-yearold Julie Weiss, a second-year student who paused outside her dormitory to consider the question.

Last week, the worst in its 156-year history, the place called Happy Valley became noticeably less so. Students and alumni felt betrayed as the allegations exploded onto the nation’s front pages, bringing notoriety to a place largely unaccustomed to scandal.

State College is a community of less than 40,000. Paterno spent 46 years leading the Penn State team, and won more games than any other major college football coach in America. The team's success has brought in millions of dollars in television broadcast rights, merchandising and more.

As the school’s trustees pledge to get to the bottom of the saga, many Penn Staters are feeling sadness, anger, a sense of loss. Some can't sleep. Others walk around with knots in their stomachs or can't stop thinking about the victims. Wherever two or more people congregate, the subject inevitably comes up. Even Saturday's pregame tailgate parties were muted with the subject that hung low over everything.

“Everyone’s been struggling to reconcile how something so bad could happen in a place that we all think is so good,” said fourth-year student Gina Mattei, 21, hours after Penn State played its first game since 1965 without Joe Paterno on the sidelines as head coach. “It's sad to think that something like that could happen HERE, in a place where everyone is really comfortable and has a lot of community spirit.”

Sandusky was charged Nov. 5 with molesting eight boys over a span of 15 years, and two university officials were charged with failing to notify authorities after being told about a 2002 incident in which Sandusky allegedly sodomized a boy in the showers of the football building.

The scandal quickly metastasized, costing two more key figures their jobs – Paterno, the face of Penn State football since 1966, as well as university president Graham Spanier. It also tarnished the reputation of an institution that preached “success with honor” and that, according to its own credo, was supposed to be better than this.

Some students argue that the question itself – “How does Penn State regain what it's lost?” – is flawed. This remains a world-renowned research institution, they point out. It’s still the place where students hold THON, a yearly dance marathon that raises millions of dollars for pediatric cancer research. It’s far more than football and far bigger than Sandusky, Spanier, even Paterno.

“I don’t think that our name is tarnished at all,” said Amy Fietlson, 19, a secondyear student and aspiring veterinarian. “The integrity of a few individuals who have been involved with this school are definitely tarnished, but for the rest of us that had no way of preventing it or had no involvement in it, we are not tarnished at all. Our integrity remains.”

But it won't be easy to recover, even with a commitment from new president Rodney Erickson to restore confidence and “rebuild our community.” Too much damage has been done during a week of growing revelations, mounting anger and shock after nationally televised shock.

The U.S. Education Department is investigating whether the university violated federal law by failing to report the alleged assaults. Some donors are expected to pull back, at least in the short term. One football recruit has already changed his mind about attending Penn State next year. Moody’s Investors Service Inc. warned that it might downgrade Penn State's bond rating as it gauges the impact of possible lawsuits.

Then there’s the risk that new allegations of wrongdoing – more abuse victims coming forward, perhaps, or evidence of a wider cover-up than what’s already been alleged – could jolt the campus again.

“I hope and I pray that it doesn’t go any further than what we’ve already seen, which is as tragic as it gets,” said George Werner, 47, a Penn State graduate who was with friends Saturday in the shadow of the football stadium.

Werner, 47, said he has struggled with the scandal every day, waking in the middle of the night and unable to go back to sleep. He fears it will be a long, long time before the university gets back to normal. “Maybe not in my lifetime,” he says.

At the ball game, fans roared “WE ARE! PENN STATE!” in thundering unison. The old chant seemed to take on new significance after a singularly horrific week. It was an incantation, as if saying the words could restore things to the way they were. It was affirmation. It was a chance to show the world that Penn State is still Penn State.

The university is so big – it’s basically a small city unto itself – that very little can alter the daily routine. Students still took tests, wrote papers, did research. Penn Staters still showed characteristic pride in their school. Saturday night crowds still packed College Avenue's bars, pizza parlors, galleries and clothing stores.

Yet the Sandusky case reached beyond the confines of the football program into every corner of campus and across the vast alumni network.

Earl Holt, a 2005 graduate who teaches school in Washington, D.C., said students and colleagues have asked him about Penn State. He came to State College over the weekend to see for himself, catching the game and gauging the mood on campus. He said he sensed “an atmosphere of disappointment, but also of wanting to heal the situation and move forward and progress.”

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