We forget sometimes how insular the world of a college campus can be, how the social and ethical culture of the place often has little relationship to what goes on outside those gates.
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For those of us who have watched the Penn State scandal unfold from afar, what occurred Wednesday night was the only thing that could reasonably happen in the wake of sex-abuse allegations involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and an apparent cover-up that seemingly reached all levels of the school’s administration. This is now a clean sweep: athletic director Tim Curley, school president Graham Spanier and iconic football coach Joe Paterno all gone, almost in the blink of an eye.
The allegations here merited nothing less than swift, decisive and complete action. Penn State’s board of trustees should be applauded for making this move now and not at the end of the season, as Paterno wanted. For the first time since this story surfaced Saturday, it actually seemed like adults — and not the interests of a football program — were in charge of the university.
And, yet, it was clear from the bizarre tone of the news conference with board of trustees vice chairman John Surma and the ensuing mayhem on campus that the provincial Penn State community doesn’t understand why Paterno had to go.
Put in an almost impossible spot as the spokesman for an unpopular decision, Surma couldn’t have handled it any better. From the beginning, the atmosphere in the room was heated with a mix of national media, local reporters and even some students who found their way into the hastily called news conference.
And even though he was pounded with angry, almost surreal questions — it ended with someone asking for a response to the “perception” that the trustees had been trying to remove Paterno since 2004 — he calmly and rationally explained why the school needed to do this right now.
“It was necessary to make a change in leadership to set the course for a new direction,” Surma said.
It made for great television, but it didn’t reflect well on Penn State, which probably reacted the way most big-time football schools would react to a legend being ushered out the door in shame. While the rest of the world sees how badly Paterno failed after he was informed by a graduate assistant in 2002 that he allegedly witnessed Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy, the Penn State community sees only the iconic image of the man and an uncertain football future without him.
And the reaction is frightening.
But this is what happens when football defines a place the way it defines State College, Pa. In a larger sense, this is what happens when you attach the billion-dollar enterprise of amateur athletics to institutions of higher learning. At Penn State, football overwhelmed the culture of everything it bumped up against and might have enabled the alleged abuse of children to continue for nearly a decade. Wednesday night, it led to thousands of students marching the streets in protest, going so far as to flip over a satellite television truck. These images were broadcast live and sent around the world, the portrait of a campus in chaos and disgrace.
It’s enough to spark a legitimate debate about whether Penn State should even play a football game on its campus Saturday. The atmosphere might just be too emotionally charged to guarantee that 100,000-plus fans can safely attend and the teams can play without incident. School officials need to give careful consideration to all possibilities before making that call.
It would be a shame for the football team, which had nothing to do with the scandal, if its game against Nebraska had to be postponed or canceled, especially in the middle of the Big Ten championship race. But the Penn State community is too shortsighted to see it would’ve been far worse to show up for the Nebraska game with Paterno as head coach and pretend like everything was all right.
And obviously the emotions are too raw right now to understand that the sun will come up tomorrow, even on Penn State football. The assumption that Penn State will go back to the Dark Ages in a post-Paterno world is simply not correct, even in the wake of this scandal.
There soon will be a new president, a new athletic director and a new football coach. Penn State has the resources, the facilities, the fan base and the state-wide talent base in place to be successful well into the future. It’s still one of the best jobs in the country, and if the right coach is hired, it will continue to be one of the best programs. The stain of this ugly week will stay with those who’ve been fired, not the school.
But now it’s up to the campus to do its part and turn the page as well. As we saw Wednesday night, that might be harder than it looks.