A week ago, Penn State football fans were looking forward to this afternoon’s showdown with Nebraska as a crucially important contest between two of the nation’s top teams.
But after seven days riddled with tumult, scandal and shame rocked State College, Pa., the fans, friends and Penn State alumni that gathered at an alumni event at Manhattan’s Tonic East bar in Kips Bay, watched their Nittany Lions with heavy hearts and mixed emotions, still reeling from the week’s inconceivable happenings.
“It’s been really emotional,” said David Fleming, 32, a 2001 Penn State alum who currently lives in Chelsea.
“There’s been a lot coming out,” said Erin Walsh, 24, a Kips Bay resident whose sister went to Penn State.
The commotion all started last Saturday, when the Pennsylvania Attorney General released a gruesome 23-page grand jury report accusing former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky of sexually abusing eight boys over the course of 15 years.
That bombshell led to the firing of several university administrators, including university president Graham Spanier and beloved football coach Joe Paterno.
Until the report’s release, Paterno, Penn State’s head coach for 46 years, was viewed almost as a deity in Pennsylvania. He holds nearly every record for a college football coach, including wins (409), bowl game appearances (37) and bowl game wins (24).
And beyond the numbers, Penn State was viewed as a model football program, regularly a top team in graduation rate and avoiding the scandals that had plagued many of the sport’s most powerful programs.
“People used to call us the gold standard of college football,” Fleming said. “Iconic coach, legendary program. That’s all kind of fallen away.”
It’s fallen away thanks to details that emerged in the Sandusky allegations.
A graduate assistant coach apparently told Paterno vague details about a 2002 rape involving Sandusky and a child in the Penn State football building. Paterno reported it to his boss, athletic director Tim Curley, but no one called the police.
Sandusky, who retired from Penn State in 1999 but was a regular visitor on campus and iconic figure in his own right, allegedly continued to molest boys for seven more years. It wasn’t until 2009, when he was caught with a child in a central Pennsylvania high school, that an investigation into Sandusky’s predatory behavior began.
Reaction to the details of the case and the subsequent firing of many Penn State officials has been a complicated mix. Students in State College rioted after Paterno’s firing, but also held a serene candlelight vigil a few nights later for Sandusky’s victims.
Here in Manhattan, the New York City chapter of the Penn State alumni association made a pledge to donate $1 for each of its dues paying members to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. But according to a Tonic East employee, who did not give his name while escorting media out of the bar upon alumni request, the phone booths outside the Kips Bay watering hole were covered with vulgar, anti-Penn State posters in advance of today’s alumni gathering.
Walsh said her sister felt “awkward” throwing on her Penn State sweatshirt this morning.
But Fleming said this game was a chance to start anew.
“(The game) is something to rally around,” he said. “It can be the start of the healing process.”
Amidst this complicated array of reactions, what is clear is that for the first time in recent memory, the university will have to handle the pressures of managing a super-sized scandal. And they’ll have to do it without their biggest icon, Joe Paterno. That’s a strange thought for many Penn Staters.
“Who knows?” Fleming said, when asked what the future holds for Penn State. “It’s going to take a long time (to figure out).”