Penn State alumni will testify that upon seeing a fellow Nittany Lion on an airplane or in a bar, in any part of the world, it is customary and normal to greet them with a shout: “We Are.” The fellow alum responds “Penn State!” It’s a refrain frequently heard at Nittany Lion football games. In the last year that football program—an institution that recently seemed totally inseparable from the university’s identity—has been damaged extensively, with more bad news possibly to come tomorrow when former FBI director Louis Freeh’s independent investigation into the actions of Joe Paterno and other school executives in the Jerry Sandusky case is released. The undermining of Paterno’s reputation has stung, but the university’s reputation with alums and prospective students—even football players—seems not to have diminished. Put another way: post-disillusionment, They Are Still Penn State.
Lee Rubin was the defensive captain of the Penn State football team, a four year letterman who played under Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno. Now, one of them has been certified as a monster. Leaks from the Freeh report have suggested Paterno may have played a decisive role in squashing a plan to alert authorities to Sandusky’s possible misbehavior; Rubin is conflicted about his feelings about Paterno, who wrote the foreward to his self-help book WIN.
“There is no way I can deny the positive impact he’s had on my life … and that’s what makes this so tough for former players,” he told BuzzFeed. “We’re wrestling with what we’ve known and experienced firsthand and what we’re hearing, which is completely contradictory.
“When you say that ‘Joe couldn’t do this’ or ‘Joe couldn’t do that’, you sound like a cult member,” Rubin said, later adding, “Everyone is human and [Paterno] even stated [in an interview with the Washington Post shortly before his death] ‘I wish I had done more.”
Like Rubin, many Penn State alumni and fans say they’re bracing for bad news in the report—though some have expressed doubts about it online. “This report is a complete sham,” wrote one commenter on the popular Blue White Illustrated message board. “The words “objective,” “complete,” “fair,” and “thorough” simply do not apply.” The pre-emptive take on the Freeh report from Paterno die-hards, it seems, is to see it as an attempt by the university to put blame on a man who can’t stand up for himself (Paterno died in January). “They want you and me and the press to blame Paterno so that the (Board of Trustees) gets off with minimal scrutiny,” one poster wrote. Some posters attacked Freeh’s tenure as FBI director. “Maybe the Paternos should investigate Freeh,” one suggested.
The strife hasn’t seemed to affect day to day life at PSU. Fundraising in the last fiscal year, the school announced this week, reached a whopping $209 million (the second-largest amount they’ve ever raised in a year). Its football team’s in-progress recruiting class for 2013 ranks in the top 15 on Rivals.com’s rankings. And in November, the school reported a rise in applications.
“I definitely wanted to make sure I donated this year to very much show that I support Penn State,” said Peter Young, a Tampa-based alum who blogs about the university at Rumblings From Beaver Stadium. “Penn State is huge … It’s not like Jerry Sandusky represented Penn State to me. He’s one person there.”
Like many alumni, he said he is still holding on to the idea that Paterno knew little of the scandal, and is hoping the Freeh report and information that comes out after doesn’t dissuade him. “I don’t know if [Paterno’s] exactly the same [to me], but in my mind things haven’t changed,” he said. “I’ve read the leaked emails, I’ve seen what they said – and I wonder why these emails were leaked.
“I want more information,” he added. “I want all the information. I want the whole truth and I want to process it for myself.”
Matt Howard, a 2005 graduate who’s recently donated money to the school, said his friends were bracing for Thursday—but hoping that their childhood hero wasn’t guilty. He believes Paterno could have been kept in the dark about what was going on with Sandusky. “Joe Pa is everybody’s surrogate grandfather,” he says. “Do you really want to have a discussion with your grandparents about one of their ‘friends’ having sex with anybody, let alone a 10 year old boy?
“I’m not sure what the reaction will be if it comes out that he definitely knew more,” he added. “Some people will still defend him and some will turn—all will still be really hurt by it, though.”