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Penn State scandal has other victims: Students

A Penn State student is arrested after rioting thfollowed coach Joe Paterno’s firing. | Matt Rourke~AP

A Penn State student is arrested after rioting that followed coach Joe Paterno’s firing. | Matt Rourke~AP

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Updated: December 2, 2011 5:12PM



The Penn State story centering around the alleged pedophilia of former defensive football coach Jerry Sandusky is one for the ages.

We will long be analyzing the investigations, the victims’ tales, the effect of the case on the future of whistle-blowing and institutional cover-ups, the responsibilities of universities and the fable-producing nature of big-time sports.

But how much has anybody thought about the students at Penn State? The role of justice amid the frenzy? The disorienting aspect of the most confusing, emotion-laden situation in the history of college sport?

Malcolm Moran, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society at Penn State and a longtime sports journalist whose reputation in the field is impeccable, certainly has.

‘‘I never dreamed anything like this could happen,’’ Moran said over the phone Friday. ‘‘Part of the reason the Knight Foundation awarded an endowment to create a chair for the analysis of sport in society here at Penn State and not at another school was because of the sterling reputation of athletics at Penn State. This was the place that had never been involved in a sports scandal. Its credibility and history were pristine.’’

Now, what is our perception?

We have images of angry students rioting and tipping over a television van. We think of a school where the president, a vice president, the athletic director, an assistant coach and the most venerated and winningest coach in the history of NCAA D-1 football, 84-year-old Joe Paterno, were fired or put on leave within a week.

We think of a distant place that seems to operate like a silver mine in the jungle.

Who knows what goes on in State College, Pa.? Why wouldn’t there be a depraved Col. Kurtz and army there in the heart of darkness?

And yet, to this moment, despite the perjury charges and the alleged coverups and the alleged hideous crime of serial child rape, as well as the media coverage from around the globe, no one from Penn Sate is in jail. Indeed, no one has been found guilty of anything.

Moran sees the turmoil from a professional perspective — is this a huge story or what? — but mostly from a personal one.

‘‘Wednesday night [Nov. 9, after Paterno was fired] was very scary,’’ he said. ‘‘A segment of the student body decided that the media was the fault here. The riots were on, and I’m thinking of my students who are covering it.’’

None of Moran’s student reporters were hurt, but many were dismayed, conflicted, overwhelmed. They came to his office sometimes breaking down into tears. They worried that they were wrong about the story, that they were adding to the misunderstandings.

‘‘Students told me they felt this enormous conflict of interest — the journalistic impulse to follow the story down dark alleys, adrenaline pumping, and as Penn Staters,’’ Moran said.

For much of the time since the tumult, Moran has listened as students try to make sense of the events which turned their worlds upside-down.

‘‘These kids are suffering,’’ he said. ‘‘All the students. We had a town hall meeting at the Curley Center, and we talked about the conflict the students felt, about their fellow students targeting the media, and we talked about the effect the story has on the storyteller.’’

Were there bad professional media folks on campus?

‘‘It was a swarm,’’ Moran said. ‘‘The word ‘media’ became an epithet. One student told me about a TV producer trying to incite students to do things just to catch them on film.

‘‘The reaction [after the firings] was so swift and raw, I’m not sure a lot of students knew what they were rioting against. Just rage.’’

If all the best part of Penn State was wrong, then what was right?

‘‘I felt confused, too,’’ Moran said.

Paterno and president Graham Spanier had, after all, turned the school into a showcase of muscular intelligence, with buildings and architecture and arboretums so far from the hick beginnings of former Pennsylvania State College as to be transcendent. And now they were not just bad guys, but evil guys?

‘‘I sometimes was on Spanier’s show, ‘Expert Opinions,’ on the Big Ten Network,’’ Moran said. ‘‘It was hosted by him, and it covered some deep issues relating to college sport. He was very good, very smart. He helped transform this campus.

‘‘He was the chair of the BCS oversight committee. He had been on almost every significant committee you can name, and he was almost named president of the NCAA in 2010. I remember wondering, ‘What will we do without him?’ ’’

Now Penn State and its family will have to find out. The gutting was huge, vertigo-inducing.

For Moran’s dazed journalism students, one big question is this: ‘‘What do you do when you’re 20 years old and you’re covering the story of your life?’’

And, the professor added, there is this, above all: ‘‘How much do we not know even now?’’



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