Penn State community stunned by harsh sanctions

Philadelphia Inquirer


Students gasped and burst into tears Monday morning in Penn State University’s HUB student center as word of the NCAA sanctions hit them with brute emotional force.

A crowd of about 50 had gathered at 9 a.m. in front of the large-screen TV in the heart of the campus to hear Mark Emmert, NCAA president, announce the anxiously anticipated verdict. Early reports had been circulating for days, predicting that the national student athletics organization would come down hard on Penn State’s football organization for shielding former assistant coach and convicted child rapist Jerry Sandusky from authorities for more than a decade.

Still, the extent of the punishment literally took the breath away from some people. Each new announcement stung like the lash of a whip.

First, the $60 million fine elicited whistles and “Oh’s.” The four-year postseason ban and reduction in scholarships was met with louder wordless groans. When Emmert said all the team’s victories from 1998 through 2011 would be wiped from the record books, one young woman cried out, “What!?” From that moment, the reactive buzz grew. Several students stalked away in disgust. As Emmert concluded his remarks, noting that the punishment inevitably would harm “many who had nothing to do with this case,” his words were drowned out by a parade of students and parents who had been led into the HUB on a campus tour.

Monday was “Spend a Summer Day With Us,” a program for high school students considering applying to Penn State.

After hearing Emmert’s remarks, Julie Behr, one of the tour guides, was overcome with sadness. “We have been through so much over the past year as a community. It’s just hard to know we’re going to continue to struggle with this going into the future.”

Behr, 22, a senior from Pittsburgh majoring in mechanical and bioengineering, found the $60 million in fines fair, especially since the money would go to help victims of abuse. But she said the public’s incessant piling on against Penn State and the attacks on the university’s integrity as a whole have taken a toll.

Eric Greene, a fellow tour guide, came over to Behr when he saw her crying and hugged her close.

“On one hand, I feel like the penalties are too much,” said Greene, 20, a junior studying criminal justice. The NCAA reached its decision without “due process,” he said. “But if we fight it, there are so many people that are hating on Penn State, we’ll just give them more reason to attack us.”

Signs of the football powerhouse’s economic impact — both direct and ancillary — can be seen everywhere in State College. Across the university, multiple construction projects dot the campus, and large areas have been gated, the verdant walking paths detoured around the work sites. And outside People’s Nation, a T-shirt shop on College Avenue, a help-wanted sign specifies, “Must be available football weekends.”

But the impact of the scandal and its tidal wave of ramifications goes far beyond the money and the football team, said Cynthia Hampton, a longtime resident of State College.

Hampton, whose daughter is a Penn State graduate and whose son has attended the university, teared up when she spoke about “the cloud” that has settled over the community.

The Nittany Lions games have brought a holiday spirit to Happy Valley, she said, with the attendant parties and crowds, colors and music. Fans would descend from distant towns.

“On football weekends, it’s nothing to sit in 20 miles of traffic coming in from outside of town in all directions.”

Hampton said she fears, too, that the school’s damaged reputation will diminish the value of her daughter’s degree.

And yet, Hampton said, all these repercussions are nothing compared to the suffering of Sandusky’s victims and their parents.

“There are consequences for bad decisions,” Hampton concluded.

Before the NCAA news conference, Garuth Acharya, a junior studying mechanical and nuclear engineering, spoke philosophically about the need to punish the administration, while remembering that Penn State remains a worthy institution.

Acharya grew up in State College, and his father teaches computer science and engineering at the university.

“We are an institution of 40,000-plus,’’ he said. “We have amazing athletes, not just on the football team. Several are going to the Olympics.”

He listened to Emmert’s statement for a few minutes, shaking his head sadly, then strode off, saying he did not want to comment any further.

For the rest of the afternoon, there seemed to be few other topics under discussion at the restaurants around town.

“I am way conflicted,” said Marshall Kearns, a businessman from West Hartford, Conn. Kearns was in State College having breakfast at Irving’s, a popular bagel restaurant, with his daughter, a junior, and two of her friends, both athletes (but not on the football team). They all agreed that no matter what anyone said, they believed that the late Joe Paterno was being unfairly tarred by the scandal.

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