Penn State’s public acts of contrition

    So, where do we go from here, Penn Staters?

    I’m talking to all of you, or at least, to the hundreds of thousands of alumni and friends living in the Philadelphia area. Where do we take our school next?

    When I last wrote about this, one of the questions fellow alumni had was about what we can do going forward. The alumni I talk to who are remaining loyal to the school aren’t doing so to preserve Joe Paterno’s legacy. Collectively, there is a genuine interest in how we can address the penalties, acknowledge the shortcomings and craft a future for Penn State.

    First — please don’t sweat the $73 million in combined penalties from the NCAA and Big Ten, or Gov. Corbett’s foot-stomping about protecting taxpayers. Because if there’s one thing PSU knows how to do, it’s raise money. And Penn Staters know how to give: In recent years, big-name alums have donated hundreds of millions of dollars — much for sports, yes, but also for study of the law, food sciences, cancer research, and honors education.

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    So it’s not about the money. It’s about punishment and penance for the entire city-state of Happy Valley.

    Like the removal of the statue and the plaques behind it, the NCAA’s cancellation of several seasons worth of football wins was a literal prying away of the physical traces of the Paterno years. It’s about public shaming on the NCAA’s part, and institutional preservation on PSU’s.

    In this way, it’s very much not about the game of football, but the sacrament of sport.

    Obviously it’s no coincidence that I keep using Catholic imagery. So much of Penn State is now exposed as having indulged the same kind of systematic moral failings as the Church in its own child sex abuse scandal. JoePa was a father figure, a grandfather figure, a head of state whose many undeniable good works are undermined and overshadowed now by critical errors in leadership and lack of moral clarity when it mattered most.

    [It also bears noting that the secular, public university has already been held more publicly accountable, showed more genuine humility, and been more welcoming of correction, than the Church will likely ever be.]

    Someone asked what I thought of the timing, of workers removing the statue in the quiet of a State College Sunday morning, covered from public view with blue tarps like a crime scene. It seemed about right, I said. Let’s face it, the bronze monument was never going to be felled in some Saddam Hussein-style public uprising. Nor are students and alumni in any mood to riot to keep it there.

    But with some obsessing on the question — Will the statue stay? — to the point of flying banner planes over University Park, Penn State’s leaders had two choices. Either take it down and end the discussion for now, or make a public statement of support saying the statue was staying put. And that couldn’t happen, what with the alcove off Curtin Road already turning into a shrine to a martyred saint.

    To me, the timing that really matters is the year 1998, which now seems fixed as the point at which any further abuse by Jerry Sandusky could have — and should have — been stopped.

    What the NCAA decided, and the university signed off on by signing the consent decree, is the notion that Paterno’s coaching career effectively ended in 1998, too. Canceling out every Penn State win from 1998 on (when McQueary was quarterback and Ray Gricar was Centre County’s District Attorney) is a direct arrow in the side of the Paterno legacy, a most personal strike.

    And you’d better believe the Paterno loyalists are taking it personally.

    On one Penn State Alumni Facebook page I frequent, the level of denial about the Freeh Report is approaching moon-landing-hoax levels of ridiculousness. They’re mad as hell — at the trustees, at Louis Freeh, at the media (naturally), at Mark Emmert, and at Tom Corbett — especially Tom Corbett, but I suspect that’s because many voted for him. (I assure you, they won’t again.)

    Now there’s a petition calling on President Erickson to step down, something about “failure of leadership and damage to the Penn State brand.” The brand! Way to prove Emmert’s point, folks. And that’s only about 11,000 people out of all the Penn Staters on Facebook.

    Time and again I’ve seen people try to make rational points about the failure of leadership at Penn State and be shouted down by the Paterno absolutists, for whom preserving the win total and maintaining “the brand” are paramount.

    It’s time to tune out that noise, to let actions speak louder than the rantings.

    Amy Z. Quinn covers planning, zoning and development news for NewsWorks and PlanPhilly. Contact her at This essay was originally published on her blog Citizen Mom.

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