I wasn’t in the room when the Penn State Board of Trustees decided to fire Joe Paterno last night, but I doubt the scene Tuesday evening outside Paterno’s house helped the coaching legend’s cause.
Paterno walked out of his front door Tuesday and faced the crowd of over 500 students and media gathered on his lawn. Really it was a confident, gingerly strut of an 84−year−old college football icon who spent decades as the best thing college sports had to offer. His career would be over the next night.
But something weird was going on. In the midst of one of the most tragic, disgusting scandals in sports history, Paterno couldn’t help but grin. The students were not yelling that they felt betrayed. They weren’t criticizing Paterno for not calling the police when, according to grand jury testimony, he learned in 2002 that graduate assistant Mike McQueary witnessed long−time defensive assistant coach Jerry Sandusky performing sexual acts in the shower with a 10−year−old boy.
Instead, the fans held up signs that read, “We Love You JoePa!” and “We are [still] Penn State!” The 300 students were part of a crowd that lined the streets of campus Tuesday to show their support for Paterno, according to PSU’s student paper, The Daily Collegian. The students rallied, ultimately in vain, to encourage the Board of Trustees to let Paterno stay in his role as Penn State coach, where for the last 46 years he racked up the most college football wins of all time.
The scene on Tuesday was surreal. An emotional Paterno told the crowd how much he appreciated their support, and the crowd roared in approval. Paterno then addressed the individuals who were allegedly molested with a massive understatement: “The kids who were victims or whatever they want to say, I think we need to say a prayer for them. It’s a tough life when people do certain things to you.”
Paterno then quickly changed the subject and said: “But anyway you’ve been great.”
With that, the crowd roared again.
Yesterday Paterno released a statement announcing that he’ll be retiring at the end of the season. Not that the Board of Trustees would not let him last that long. In the statement, he called the allegations of Sandusky molesting eight boys over 15 years “one of the great sorrows of my life.”
I have no doubt that this week has been one of the saddest in Paterno’s life. But what I do question is where this sorrow is directed. Paterno is not the victim here, despite the Penn State students who love him through thick and thin and are visibly devastated by this story.
The victims are the kids, most of whom are now around my age, and — allegedly, though the evidence is mounting and another one went public on Tuesday, with more possibly still to come forward — were molested while witnesses allowed Sandusky to keep running a charity and a youth football camp, two opportunities for him to come in contact with young boys.
Paterno’s retirement statement is strong PR speak — he’s “absolutely devastated,” and “this is a tragedy,” for example. But I find his off−the−cuff remarks to fans outside his house a far more compelling view into his head.
It’s simultaneously heart−warming and nauseating. The undying loyalty from the fans is moving, as Paterno leads them in a “We are! Penn State!” chant before heading back into his home.
But when the high fades we realize we’ve just watched the face of the Penn State program, facing a child−sex abuse scandal, smile.
Ben Kochman is a junior majoring in English.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or on Twitter @benkochman.