Friday, November 11, 2011

My Visit to a Tormented Penn State

By now you have heard of the child molestation scandal at Penn State. Quite honestly, it's been hard to avoid lately. It seems that everywhere I've looked in the last few days the only thing that anyone wanted to talk about has been the victims, coaches or about who was or wasn't getting fired. This isn't surprising considering that I was recently in State College, PA.

During my time there I saw quite a bit while trying to make sense of it all, and it hasn't been easy. I'd like to share with you my experiences and thoughts on the matter.

When I arrived at Penn State, the scandal was all that I heard about while walking across campus, eating dinner and riding to the hotel in a taxi. There was a single news van on College Avenue not far from some my favorite haunts. Having been here several times before, this news van seemed out of place, but I understood the necessity of it. I saw a group of protesting students discussing how best to occupy a public space in order to gain support for the firing of university president Graham Spanier. I heard one of the protesters mention that he was in it for the long haul. They were all gone the following morning.

I saw the same news van that was present the day before as I ducked into my favorite coffee shop (The Cheese Shop). The normally crowded place was packed, and the patrons discussed the scandal at length as I fixed my morning coffee. While there was a sense of general interest, it wasn't as charged as the attitude that was soon to unfold.

That day head coach, Joe Paterno, was fired over the phone. This is the most beloved football coach who, based on my discussions these last few days, seemed more like a mythical father figure than a mere man. He even has his own ice cream flavor at the Penn State (Peachy Paterno). When you mention Paterno, the emotions run fondly and swiftly. Needless to say, the decision to fire Joe was not a popular one. Rumors of the imminent firing of Spanier circulated, but this took a back seat to news of the head coach not being allowed to finish out the season on his own terms.

I tried to keep my work on track the best that I could, and ended up insulating my group from some of the fervor. This ended up causing the impending riot to be more of a surprise than it otherwise might have been.

At about 10:30 I am awoken to what sounds like fireworks going off along with some shouting. This continued intermittently until 10:42 when I got up to check the news. Sure enough, the news had just been announced that Graham Spanier was fired. I thought nothing more of this until I work up the next morning and turned on the news. It turns out that the "fireworks" that I heard were most likely some sort of pepper spray grenade or other crowd control device.

A large group of students had occupied College Avenue, tore down street lights/street signs and even toppled over that news van. All of this was going on a half block from my hotel room. That morning's trip to The Cheese Shop was a little different: the news vans had multiplied overnight, and the talk was of an entirely different tone.

Some blamed the media which had called for swift and decisive action in response to allegations of child molestation. Others blamed the board for making a rash decision. Sentiments such as "What did they expect from the student body?" and "They should have known this was going to happen" were common.

Outside of State College, I heard that the reaction to the rioting students was not nearly as empathetic. When there are bigger issues to address, such as the economy, an emotional battle that you aren't linked to is hard to understand. Being present for these events, but not being a local has me caught in the middle. While there are much bigger problems in the world, changing most of them seem out of reach for most of us. What can one really do within the course of a few days in regards to the economy? With a local issue there is much more focus, so change seems more tangible.

Perhaps this local scandal is giving students and residents something real to focus on. They know the people involved and they live in the community. By focusing on the local problem, they can ignore the more daunting global problems for a while. It just may be a form of escapism which, considering the state of the world, I find completely justifiable.

The final home game at PSU is this Saturday and there is talk of students charging the field in protest. I sincerely hope that this doesn't happen, and I'm wishing all of my friends and acquaintances in the area a safe and peaceful weekend.
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