Honoring Joe Paterno Is Not the Answer for Penn State

When it comes to dealing with the sex-abuse scandal, Rodney Erickson and a vocal minority of alums took the university off course.

I don’t know which bothers me more: last week’s dog-and-pony show that was Penn State president Rodney Erickson’s town-hall tour to talk “openly” (ha!) to alumni about the details of the November sex-abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, or the people who attended those meetings. The former was a weak and, in the end, failed public relations effort.

PSU claims more than 500,000 alums in the U.S., and more than half of those live in Pennsylvania. Yet only about 650 people attended the King of Prussia meeting last week; the Pittsburgh gathering posted a similar low number. (As a Penn State grad who has sat among record-setting football crowds at Beaver Stadium, 600 is the restroom line I’ve prayed for at halftime.) Essentially, all Erickson’s stuffed-armchair Q&As achieved was to spotlight a vocal minority. You know, folks like Yelp reviewers, birthers, and the alumnus in KOP whom the Inquirer quoted:

“It feels like the board of trustees, you, everyone just bowed to this media firestorm,” a 1973 graduate said. “It was just so disturbing with how we were perceived and what we did in response to that.”

Oh, yes, that’s certainly what matters here. How we were perceived. I cringed when I read that last week. Sure enough, come the Sunday papers, Inky columnist Karen Heller took the totally justified shot:

“When those alumni want only to debate the removal of an 85-year-old football coach who should have retired years ago, you have a Penn State problem.

And when virtually no alumni want to speak about the real calamity—a dozen boys allegedly brutalized on campus, administrative inaction that enabled further assaults—you have yet another Penn State scandal in the making.”

She’s right. Unfortunately, meetings like Erickson’s attract raucous voices, and the media coverage of the events reflected an alumni base made up of people who derive so much self-worth from their alma mater that they can’t bear to have it tainted with scandal, or people so attached to a deified Joe Paterno that they can’t tell the difference between a man and god.

All the knowledge I gained during my four years in Happy Valley is still intact; all the good memories from the Phyrst are still burnished. My degree is still worth what it was the day I got it. A quick survey of my fellow Penn State alum friends—none attended the KOP meeting—reveals the same. Everyone’s still getting up in the morning and going to work. Regarding the sex-abuse scandal, none of them feel like anything happened to them—because nothing did happen to them.

Yet now we have graduates calling for the heads of members of the board of trustees (must be surreal to have served in total obscurity for so long and now be making headlines) and the reinstatement of Joe Paterno—is there any better proof of how out of touch these people are?—and clamoring for a celebration of the former coach.

According to the Patriot-News, in Pittsburgh last Wednesday, “The audience gave its first full-throated cheer for Erickson when he said Penn State will honor Paterno at some point.”

But, come on, Joe Paterno doesn’t need that. Indeed, the coach went out of his way his entire career to avoid overt individual recognition (for himself and his players).

I’d guess that some people calling for the feting of Paterno probably feel heartache for the man, particularly in light of the sympathetic Washington Post interview with him that was published over the weekend.

I argue the majority of that vocal minority just wants to go back in time. They think that if Penn State publicly restores Paterno to his place of honor at the university, they will once again be able to look upon their alma mater as the utopia where good and idealistic things happen, instead of as a place where evil things can.

Well, you could set off an orchestrated fireworks show spelling out “JoePa” over the whole of Pennsylvania, and you aren’t going to get that back. No amount of statues or Paterno awards or parties or plaques is going erase the fact that this scandal is a permanent footnote.

In the days and weeks after Jerry Sandusky was arrested, what I like to think of as Penn State’s majority was given voice in the media. General consensus seemed to be that most alums were angry about an apparent cover-up of a crime by university officials, and horrified at what happened to Sandusky’s alleged victims. They all still recognized that Penn State was a solid place to get a college education. Is there any other impression to be left with?

Thanks to Rodney Erickson’s misguided town-hall tour, yes. So perhaps the president should think twice about future public relations efforts. Maybe those who attended and spoke out in anger—not about the actual victims of this tragedy but about a university’s reputation—will heed Joe Paterno’s own words from the Post interview: “You know, I’m not as concerned about me,” he said. “What’s happened to me has been great. I got five great kids. Seventeen great grandchildren. I’ve had a wonderful experience here at Penn State. I don’t want to walk away from this thing bitter.”