On Penn State campus tears, sorrow, resignation

Penn State alumna Andrea Walker of Harrisburg peeks through the security fence and tarp at the site where Joe Paterno's statue stood. The statue was removed on Sunday morning, after university president Rodney Erickson said it had become "a source of division."
Penn State alumna Andrea Walker of Harrisburg peeks through the security fence and tarp at the site where Joe Paterno's statue stood. The statue was removed on Sunday morning, after university president Rodney Erickson said it had become "a source of division."
Posted: July 25, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. - Students and others gasped and burst into tears Monday morning in Pennsylvania State University's HUB student center as word of the NCAA sanctions hit them with brute emotional force.

A crowd of about 50 had gathered at 9 a.m. in front of the large-screen TV in the heart of the campus to hear Mark Emmert, NCAA president, announce the anxiously anticipated verdict. Early reports had been circulating for days, predicting that the national student athletics organization would come down hard on Penn State's football organization for shielding former assistant coach and convicted child rapist Jerry Sandusky from authorities for more than a decade.

Still, the extent of the punishment literally took the breath away from some people. Each new announcement stung like the lash of a whip.

First, the $60 million fine elicited whistles and "Oh's." The four-year postseason ban and reduction in scholarships was met with louder wordless groans. When Emmert said all the team's victories from 1998 through 2011 would be wiped from the record books, one young woman cried out, "What!?" From that moment, the reactive buzz grew. Several students stalked away in disgust. As Emmert concluded his remarks, noting that the punishment would inevitably harm "many who had nothing to do with this case," his words were drowned out by a parade of students and parents who had been led into the HUB on a campus tour.

Monday was "Spend a Summer Day With Us," a program for high school students considering applying to Penn State.

After hearing Emmert's remarks, Julie Behr, one of the tour guides, was overcome with sadness. "We have been through so much over the past year as a community. It's just hard to know we're going to continue to struggle with this going into the future." Behr, 22, a senior from Pittsburgh majoring in mechanical and bioengineering, found the $60 million in fines fair, especially since the money would go to help victims of abuse. But she said the public's incessant piling on against Penn State and the attacks on the university's integrity as a whole have taken a toll.

Eric Greene, a fellow tour guide, came over to Behr when he saw her crying and hugged her close. "On one hand, I feel like the penalties are too much," said Greene, 20, a junior studying criminal justice. The NCAA reached its decision without "due process," he said. "But if we fight it, there are so many people that are hating on Penn State, we'll just give them more reason to attack us."

Signs of the football powerhouse's economic impact - both direct and ancillary - can be seen everywhere in State College. Across the university, multiple construction projects dot the campus and large areas have been gated, the verdant walking paths detoured around the work sites. And outside People's Nation, a T-shirt shop on College Avenue, a help-wanted sign specifies, "Must be available football weekends."

But the impact of the scandal and its tidal wave of ramifications goes far beyond the money and the football team, said Cynthia Hampton, a longtime resident of State College. Hampton, whose daughter is a Penn State graduate and whose son has attended the university, teared up when she spoke about "the cloud" that has settled over the community.

The Nittany Lions games have brought a holiday spirit to Happy Valley, she said, with the attendant parties and crowds, colors, and music. Fans would descend from distant towns. "On football weekends, it's nothing to sit in 20 miles of traffic coming in from outside of town in all directions." Hampton said she fears, too, that the school's damaged reputation will diminish the value of her daughter's degree.

And yet, Hampton said, all these repercussions are nothing compared to the suffering of Sandusky's victims and their parents.

"There are consequences for bad decisions," Hampton concluded.

Before the NCAA news conference, Garuth Acharya, a junior studying mechanical and nuclear engineering, spoke philosophically about the need to punish the administration, while remembering that Penn State remains a worthy institution. Acharya grew up in State College and his father teaches computer science and engineering at the university. "We are an institution of 40,000-plus. We have amazing athletes, not just on the football team. Several are going to the Olympics." He listened to Emmert's statement for a few minutes, shaking his head sadly, then strode off, saying he did not want to comment any further.

For the rest of the afternoon, there seemed to be few other topics under discussion at the restaurants around town.

"I am way conflicted," said Marshall Kearns, a businessman from West Hartford, Conn. Kearns was in State College having breakfast at Irving's, a popular bagel restaurant, with his daughter, a junior, and two of her friends, both athletes (but not on the football team). They all agreed that no matter what anyone said, they believed that the late Joe Paterno was being unfairly tarred by the scandal.

Repeating the mantra that has been heard here since the scandal broke in November, Kearns said, "Joe was a man of character. He was old school. You give it to your superiors and move on." Kearns said he understood the need for harsh punishment. Yet, he noted, "the NCAA has really, really damaged both the school and the football program. But as the parent of two kids, God forbid, I was standing in the shoes of the parents of those victims. ...There are no winners coming out of this."

The site behind the football stadium, where Paterno's statue was removed Sunday morning, has become a memorial site.

Fans, mourning the symbol's passing and the man they adored, wedged a bouquet of orange carnations into the chain link fence, placed a candle on the ground and left posters - some arch ("Unfair to Players Unfair to JoePa"), others more careful ("We are hurt, like so many others, and we will make it better. ...We are caring, compassionate people. ...") A steady stream of visitors came to peek through - and tear holes in - the blue tarp blocking the view of the half-moon concrete nook where the coach, statues of his players, and an inspirational quote once shined.

"My heart breaks for the victims," said Andrea Walker, a 1995 Penn State graduate who now teaches middle school science near Harrisburg. "Sandusky's victims, but also the players who did nothing wrong."

Walker said she wished Paterno had the chance to give "his side of the story."

"A lot of us don't know how to feel," she said. "Everything we believed in, his moral character, the university's moral standing, just doesn't seem to be real."

Evan McCaffrey, 24, an aspiring photojournalist from Altoona, lay on his belly to take a photo from under the gate. His family, going back to his great-grandfather, have all been Penn Staters, and his parents have a bathroom shrine to their alma mater, with the logo on the floor and a large framed photo of Paterno on the wall.

"I think they're punishing the wrong people," he said of the NCAA. The economic blow, he said, will hurt "the average person working for the university. Jobs will be lost."

Outside the restaurant, Robert Merrell, a retired salesman for Brooks Bros., was lingering over coffee and a cigarette. Sandusky's victims, he said, "were sacrificed upon the altar of gold, greed, and glory - the glory being football." Then he recommended a visit to the alumni building and the words engraved in the stone outside the entrance.

"May no act of ours bring shame to one heart that loves thy name. May our lives but swell thy fame, Dear Old State, Dear Old State."

Contact Melissa Dribben at 215-854-2590 or mdribben@phillynews.com

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