What Does It Really Mean to “Punish Penn State”?

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The chant “WE ARE PENN STATE” was iconic and bone-chilling thanks to its utter simplicity. I say “was” because the phrase hasn’t been as simple ever since November 5, 2011. And with our school’s symbols and leaders — those whom we held in the highest respect — being condemned, sued, and jailed, the name of Penn State has become synonymous with the opposite of what it meant less than a year ago.

We are Penn State. Well, are we? Do we want to be now? Do we want to have our names tied to this institution that immediately raises eyebrows at the very mention of it? Yeah, I think we still do. Because who really is Penn State?

The fact of the matter is that the crimes and the almost-certainly-true-but-technically-alleged coverup, heinous though they were, were committed by just a handful of people, a microscopic portion of the 96,519 students and 17,780 faculty and staff that form the technical makeup of the University.

It appears that no small part of the Penn State leadership is going down—either on criminal charges or through costly civil suits against the University. “Penn State should pay” echoes across the country after Friday’s verdict, calling for Penn State to be punished, for the end of the football program, that anything vaguely associated with Penn State can go to hell in a handbasket.

But again, who is Penn State? It’s a distinction that has gotten severely blurred throughout the trials in courts of law and courts of public opinion. It’s the exact same distinction between the government and the country. Look at Watergate, when the President betrayed the trust that the country’s electorate put in him. But it didn’t mean that everyone in America was guilty with him, or that the government should suspend its business.

What it did do is recover from that black mark, and that’s what Penn State (not the brand name; the collection of people who make up the University) needs to do here when we move forward. We were shocked, we were appalled, and we still are. We are not the Penn State that’s been deservedly chastised. In fact, it’s the opposite: we are Penn State, but the leaders who’ve failed are not. Penn State (and more specifically, the football program) was built on principle: the foundation is solid. People forget about Rip Engel, the Paterno before Paterno himself. Or George Atherton or Evan Pugh, but these aren’t the first names that come to mind. The point is that Penn State is much more than just this one chapter, albeit grim.

The world really needs to realize what Penn State really is. It’s hard-working students and faculty, which shows through with the millions of dollars THON raises throughout the year, and the high quality of education Penn State achieves year in and year out. It’s about all the students who chose not to riot on the night of November 9, and pleaded to others to do the same.

If all this talk of shutting down Penn State were to come to pass, who would really suffer? I mean no disrespect to the victims, but dismantling or chipping away at a university with thousands of students and staff is not a helpful answer to their (and the world’s) understandable anger. Some have called for a one-season suspension of the football program to do some soul searching. And maybe it should. But the program has already cleaned house; Jay Paterno, Tom Bradley, Mike McQueary and a lot of the old staff are out. And with Bill O’Brien running the offense, you’ll know that Joe Paterno is out of the picture when Penn State doesn’t run a dive on 3rd and 14. So, Penn State football is really a different being than the one whose image and status was warped and misused with utterly tragic consequences.

But with the trickle-down effect, it would ultimately be ordinary students and employees who stand to lose the most. We, the collective Penn State, can’t be collateral damage for misdirected anger and vengeance. It doesn’t matter how egregious the crime was; the bottom line is that we didn’t do anything wrong. Instead, let’s focus the punishment on those who deserve it. And trust me, the hint of excitement in her voice when Linda Kelly wouldn’t “comment on that ongoing investigation” was pretty telling that the guilty parties will get their comeuppance. Not to mention, the Freeh report due is out in a month or so, an investigation that can only be bad for Penn State. And with a completely new football staff, we should make it a rallying point for us as it was before.

And this is not to say that we’re not in sympathy with the victims and their families, and the possible victims beyond the 10 who have already come forward. I think the candlelight vigil held in November and attended by over 10,000 speaks volumes to the contrary, as does Beaver Stadium decked out all in blue for the Nebraska game. In fact, Penn State (minus the administration) has always stood in support with the victims from the start.

But the so-called standard-bearers of Penn State have grossly tarnished that standard. It’s up to us to rebuild the name and show them who we really are. We can rise above the ashes and remind people once again what “WE ARE PENN STATE” means. And targeting Penn State for punishment as a whole will only hurt the good innocents of this university after the guilty are dealt with.

Photo By: Shawn Inglima
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About Author

Dan is a senior and has been writing for Onward State since January 2010. Did you miss him? Nah, neither did we. He's returning after a semester abroad in England and will be serving as Arts Editor. Favorite things in life include references to The Big Lebowski.

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