by Meghan Rodriguez
On Saturday, November 12, the Penn State Nittany Lions faced the Nebraska Cornhuskers as millions across the nation watched on ESPN. This wasn’t just another football game. It was Senior Day and the first in-conference game against Nebraska since it joined the Big 10 Conference this season.
Most noticeably, it was also the first game since 1946 that head coach Joe Paterno wasn’t present on the sidelines or in the coach’s box. Three days prior to the game, Paterno was fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees. Paterno failed to report his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky to police after allegations had been made that he had molested several young boys over the course of 15 years.
What happened not only rocked State College, Penn., but the nation. Paterno was known in the college football world for running a clean football program built on hard work. Penn State has one of the highest graduation rates among its players. And unlike several other big name programs in recent years, Penn State manages to operate within the rules set by the NCAA.
As news of Paterno’s firing quickly made its way across campus, student protests turned into violent riots. Images of destroyed property joined by chants of “Hell no we want Joe,” were broadcast by major news stations across the country.
I sat and watched with disbelief thinking to myself: “Do these kids even know what they’re protesting? Do they realize why Paterno was fired?” Although only a fraction of Penn State’s 45,000 students were involved in these riots, the images were still disturbing and did not send a good message to those watching.
ESPN began its broadcast of Saturday’s game 15 minutes early to show the seniors being introduced one by one on the field and a moment of silence for victims of sexual abuse. However, the most powerful moment of the broadcast was when the teams met midfield and knelt in prayer, led by a Nebraska assistant coach. The moment was unexpected and gave me chills.
During the week, I heard numerous television reporters repeat the line, “Penn State is bigger than Joe Paterno. It is bigger than football,” but in that moment, it was football that played a major part in the healing process.
The image Penn State projected on Saturday was a stark contrast from what it displayed Wednesday night. After a week of being the focus of media attention, those tied to the Penn State family and those directly affected by the scandal used Saturday as a form of therapy.
Students distributed blue ribbons outside the stadium and fans were asked to wear blue in honor of sexual abuse victims. As the cameras closely focused in on individual players, fans, cheerleaders and other attendees, it was clear that many of them were fighting back tears. It had been an emotionally draining week for all those with ties to the university.
Penn State prides itself on the motto, “We are Penn State.” In September, I had the opportunity to attend a Penn State football game and was impressed with the class and school pride that the students exhibited. Despite the team’s loss, Beaver Stadium still erupted in cheers and chants, especially when Paterno was shown on the JumboTron.
To many, Joe Paterno WAS Penn State. To those he coached, he was a teacher and a father figure. To the students, he was a legend and the face of not only the football program, but also the entire university.
In order for Penn State to take the steps toward rebuilding its image and football program, it had to start with a clean slate and remove everyone who had knowledge of the scandal. This had to begin at the top with the president and eventually make its way to members of the coaching staff.
It’s going to take time for Penn State to get used to the fact that Joe Paterno is no longer its coach. He was a great football coach, but his morality and ethics will forever be questioned because of what he didn’t do when he had the chance.
Penn State’s image may be tarnished at the moment, but it has taken the first step toward recovery and healing. Other universities have faced crises and major trauma and bounced back, and Penn State will do the same.
It is a great university that is defined by its rich tradition, student body, alumni and community and in time will return back to the nickname it has been given, Happy Valley.