The Penn State Manifesto: Examining the Five Stages of Grief for PSU Students

Tom SmithContributor IIJuly 31, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, PA - JULY 22: The sun sets behind Beaver Stadium on July 22, 2012 in State College, The statue was removed by workers after Pennsylvania. Penn State's president Rodney Erickson made the decision Sunday in the wake of the child sex scandal of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. According to an FBI report, it is believed that Paterno had detailed knowledge of Jerry Sandusky sexually abusing children before and after Sandusky retired from coaching at Penn State. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

It's time.

Before this week, I never felt that it would be appropriate to make a statement about the scandal at Penn State, my own university, for a couple of reasons:

1. There was always more information to be released—pieces of the puzzle that were missing.

2. I would be dismissed as an ignorant "college kid" who should keep his mouth shut. Clearly, I would be biased since I go to Penn State.

3. What was there to gain, or even say, about the situation? I had no desire to make even the slightest defense of Penn State after our administrators and coaches betrayed us. On the other hand, I didn't want to walk away from all of the good feelings I have towards the school that I will graduate from without looking back.

4. I was never entirely sure how to put any feelings I had about the situation into words. When asked about the scandal by even my closest friends and family, I would only give the vague response of "mixed feelings" in an attempt to change the subject as fast as possible.

In the past week, two of these problems were finally resolved by two prominent men. Louis Freeh saw that "mixed feelings" were turned into just plain disappointment, and Mark Emmert saw that the puzzle of information would finally be completed.

I'm not sure the other two reasons will ever be resolved.

I hope that I'm capable of having an unbiased opinion of the situation. However, what people say about Penn State is true: it's a cult. It absolutely is. It's just a fact. I like to think that my love for the school is outside of the bounds of the cult mentality, but it's probably not. I mean, if someone is brainwashed they don't know that they're brainwashed. It's inherent in the word itself.

As for number three, I'm still not entirely sure what I want to say. I see this piece as more of a collection of thoughts and reactions about everything that we've seen in the past 8 months.

In a scandal that's not as black and white as everyone makes it out to be, and in a time where Penn State students, fans, and sympathizers are essentially classified as animals, here is my take on the timeline of the five stages of grief and how they apply to the majority of intelligent Penn State students:

1. Denial

This is the part where I could potentially sound like an ignorant Penn State fan. So, don't take it from me, take it from respected ESPN journalist Rick Reilly, who said that Joe Paterno was still an overall "good and decent man" after his firing. Take it from Duke basketball legend Mike Krzyzewski, who said that Penn State made a "real mistake" in firing Joe Paterno. Take it from the founder of Nike, Phil Knight, who said that the villain in the tragedy was the investigation, and not Joe Paterno.

Sure, these men didn't riot in State College, but neither did the majority of Penn Staters. The majority of Penn Staters took to the streets because they didn't know what else to do. The majority of Penn Staters went outside with no other intentions besides standing around with other people who were in the same situation. The majority of Penn Staters "rioted" because they simply refused to believe what was happening.


Their world was turned upside down in a matter of moments when someone they were led to believe was a god (we'll get to this later) not only became mortal, but became a failure. They blamed the media, blamed Mike McQueary, blamed the Board of Trustees, and blamed Graham Spanier. Anyone but Joe. Denial at its finest.

A minority of students who attend Penn State (yes, statistics tell us that there will be some clowns in a student body of 40,000) overturned a van, threw rocks at cars, and took down light posts. Unfortunately, when every media outlet in the United States is pointing a camera your way, that tends to make your entire student body look like a bunch of fools.

We didn't believe that JoePa should have been fired, and didn't believe that he was at fault. The lack of details and information regarding his role in the scandal was just more fuel to the fire. We had a portrait of Joe Paterno in our apartment living room most of the school year, which is just insane to think about now. While the trustees' decision 100% turned out to be the correct one, I'm still bitter about how the situation was handled to this day.

2. Anger

Penn State students have directed their anger towards a variety of people throughout the scandal, for better or worse.

Many have blamed media sources for focusing all of their coverage on Joe Paterno and not Jerry Sandusky. I actually had no problem with this, and did not blame the media for only talking about Paterno.

Why would the media talk about Jerry Sandusky? Sandusky is possibly the only black and white scenario of the entire situation. The man is a monster. Period. No discussion required.

It's an unfortunate side effect that many will associate this scandal with Paterno more than Sandusky because of the media's coverage, but an unavoidable one. Many people just can't be trusted to interpret a story with various names, figures, and constantly moving pieces that they may or may not have heard of.

I'd like to offer the following two exchanges I've had this summer as an intern in New York City living in the NYU dorms:

"Oh, you go to Penn State?" "Yes." "Don't they love Sandusky there?"

"Oh, you go to Penn State?" "Yes." "Didn't they just have a parade for Joe Paterno?" (Whether this person was addressing the riots or funeral service is still unclear.)

Is this the media's fault for the way they covered the story? Maybe, maybe not. I guess it's a personal call here.

For those who are upset by the media's coverage, at least know that the Freeh Report got it right: Joe Paterno is mentioned 191 times, Schultz 294, Curley 299, Spanier 327 and Jerry Sandusky 685 times.

However, there are a few places where I thought anger could be legitimately directed:

A. At the Board of Trustees, not for the decision itself, but for the way it was handled

Allow me to state this one more time for clarity: I had no problem with the decision to fire Joseph Vincent Paterno.

I did have a HUGE problem with the cowardly press conference held by the Board of Trustees.

The board had to know that there would be immense backlash. Instead of vaguely explaining the firing, they should have laid everything on the table. They should have bluntly said, "Joe Paterno was in full knowledge of child abuse committed by Jerry Sandusky, and allowed it to continue for 10 years."

If the trustees had made such a simple and clear statement of complete moral wrongdoing and human indecency, they may have prevented the riots and any questioning of the decision in the next 8 months. Would the same number of people have actually rioted if it had been made perfectly clear that Joe Paterno was definitely aware of child abuse?

I'm not so sure.

However, the big problem with this approach is that the Board of Trustees likely did not have enough information to make a 100% confident statement of Joe's role at the time.  If they did have this information then they should have made a statement similar to my proposal. If they didn't (which I believe was probably the case), then they shouldn't have fired him until they did have sufficient info for a statement, or until the season ended. Period.

Instead, they took the cowardly, and quite frankly dumb, route. The Board's quick decision was completely based on public pressure. They fired one of the most beloved coaches ever, in any sport, without providing an exact reason for it, or without even providing pinpoint responses to reporters' questions. They were responsible for sparking an unstable population in an uncertain time.

Now, this is the part where someone outside of Penn State would chastise me for being "biased," and for bashing the Trustees for making the "right," tough call of firing Paterno.

Unlike those of you who haven't read the Freeh report (see: everyone reading this right now), I have actually read it.

Those of you who have actually read the report (once again, see: nobody) would know that the biggest problem with it is that there are a ton of opinions based on minimal facts and evidence.

If you're going to be one of the people who uses the Freeh report as the golden source of all information and resolutions for this case (see: everyone who bases their opinions off of the media), then you have to accept every opinion that Mr. Freeh offers.

Regarding the Trustees, Louis Freeh clearly states that "the Board’s subsequent removal of Paterno as head football coach was poorly handled, as were the Board’s communications with the public."

Some additional comments from Trustees themselves in the report:

"One Trustee said that the Board was seeking to act quickly when it instead should have acted in a more deliberate way, with all of the facts."

"Some Trustees felt that the discussion on Paterno's future with the football program was rushed and not sufficient for the situation."

"Most Trustees agree that the Board did not properly handle the termination of Paterno. Some Trustees agreed that the Board was ill-prepared to address the situation."

I guess it's a personal decision whether or not you believe a bunch of college kids should be blamed for reacting to a situation that was clearly "poorly handled," by the accounts of both Louis Freeh and the Trustees themselves. I mean, if you accept Louis Freeh's conclusion about Joe Paterno being at fault, then you also have to accept this conclusion as well. Right?

B. At the media for condescendingly saying that Penn State fans "deified" Joe Paterno and Penn State football.

This is honestly probably my biggest problem —and the point that makes me the most mad—in the entire scandal.

When discussing NCAA sanctions, many media members have continually said something along the lines of, "This is what happens when you worship a football coach and program." You? Are they serious right now?

The media worshiped the ground that Joe Paterno walked on for 30+ years. The only reason Penn State worships him too is because the media had told us to. Believe it or not, people in State College weren't having dinners with the Paterno's every Sunday after a big game. They weren't moved by Joe Paterno's godlike aura every day over morning coffee. Their lives weren't changed by directly hearing his infinite wisdom.


I'm not trying to make excuses, but it's a fact. How else would they know whether or not he was a legend, or even important? The only place for Penn State fans to get their information about Joe was through the media, specifically ESPN.

It's not like this was some independent worship that was somehow happening in State College by itself. When your old football coach is one of two hosts on ESPN's "Difference Makers: Life Lessons with Paterno and Krzyzewski," you're going to fall in love with the guy.

The only difference is that, when everything went to hell, most reporters were able to immediately sever any emotional ties to Joe Paterno because a.) it's their job and b.) they have no personal connection to the situation. Believe it or not, it's a little harder to make an instantaneous 180 when you have taken pride in being associated with Joe Paterno and Penn State football for 4 or more years of your life, after you have been continually told of the respected tradition of your school and your coach.

C. At other students and professors for condescendingly and casually dismissing the scandal like it's not a big deal, because academics are "what got us here."

I would never attack Penn State academics. My internship this summer is a direct result of Penn State's corporate connections.

However, to act like academics and athletics can be viewed objectively as two separate pieces is simply naive. A university is a name brand and nothing more. Just like other brands, any kind of publicity can negatively affect that image.

The bottom line is this: The scandal makes my Penn State degree less valuable.

Yes, the same recruiters will keep coming to Penn State. However, if I was to go to Oregon and try to get a job in five years and they see my Penn State degree, what is the first thing that they are going think of?

People need to stop pretending that academics, Joe Paterno, the scandal, and our university's overall image are not directly tied together just because they aren't interested in sports, JoePa, or the football team.

3. Bargaining

This was the period between the firing and the Freeh report (many months) where students bargained that yes, Joe Paterno made a mistake and his legacy was affected, but he was still an overall great man that Penn State should be proud of.

We bargained that Penn State would recover; we would donate money to prevent child abuse and hit 10 million at THON.

We bargained that we would somehow honor the victims and Joe Paterno at the same time, as if it was somehow possible.

We bargained that "We Still Are."

We bargained that nothing could ever make up for what happened to the victims, but we would at least see justice served to Jerry Sandusky in the courts.

We bargained that Bill O'Brien was the right man for the job and would quickly restore Penn State football to glory.

We bargained that the emotions we felt at the Nebraska game showed our resolve as a community, student body, and football team.

Everything was kept in an unstable and unsustainable balance—a temporary peacetime that most knew would eventually end when the next step in the healing process began.

4. Disappointment and Embarrassment

*Note that the fourth step in the grieving process is actually depression. However, it was in this humble writer's opinion these words were more appropriate to use here.

That balance was unstable, as everything came crashing down with the release of the Freeh report.

We learned that our administrators felt that preserving the image of the football program was worth covering up ongoing child abuse occurring right under their noses, and in their football facilities.

We learned that our administrators exchanged specific emails regarding Jerry Sandusky, and were more concerned with opening "pandora's box" than rescuing young children.

We learned, most disturbingly, that Joe Paterno may have single-handedly prevented these administrators from contacting authorities and child support services.

At this point, I don't know how anyone who has even the smallest of a connection to Penn State could use any other words besides utter disappointment.

I hope people realize that the actual words themselves, "Penn State," will be directly associated with a child abuse scandal for the foreseeable future. They could easily have that connotation forever.

Simple things that we enjoyed about Penn State are now stained. Personally, I'll have trouble referring to it as "Happy Valley" from here on out. State College was Happy Valley because it was where these kinds of things didn't happen. It was where a team had the same honorable, humanitarian football coach for 46 years. It was a place that was built on a tradition of integrity. Now, none of these things are true.

Like I said before, Penn State is a cult. It was a small town with a big time college football program and a pristine image, something that seems impossible. Penn State is the Nittany Lion shrine and the Nittany Lion mascot. It's THON. It's "Happy Valley." It's Old Main, Beaver Stadium, the HUB, and East dorms. It's where your parents went and your siblings went. It's the Waffle Shop and Canyon Pizza. It's College Ave. and Beaver Ave. It's overpriced apartments and textbooks. It's dining buffets and West cookies. It's Creamery ice cream. It's "Zombie Nation" and fanatic tailgating. It was a head football coach walking to work from a modest, local home.

Like it or not, the entire mystique of the State College area was crushed in one swift, devastating, and unforgettable blow this year. The bottom line is that it sucks, and I'm not sure how else to put it. I just wish that the rest of the universe would give the community a second to digest everything.

Maybe this is me overreacting, but even a simple, good-spirited picture like this just doesn't feel the same anymore:

With all of that being said, I also hope that some Penn Staters will get in gear for a second to catch up with the rest of the universe.

In the past few weeks, I have somehow never been prouder to be a Penn State student, but more embarrassed at the same time. Is this scandal what I signed up for when I came here as a freshman? Absolutely not. Would I trade my time here, or that decision, for anything in the world? Absolutely not.

Last night I saw a guy wearing a Penn State shirt on the train back home. I gave him a "we are" and he gave me a fist bump of silent acknowledgement and understanding. Such a simple exchange made me remember why I love my university. We won't ever be ashamed, and some people just won't get that.

Also, can we talk about this 2013 class, in both football recruiting and students in general? I honestly can't believe that this, or any, group of high school seniors would even want to come here, let alone want to come here to play football, after all that has happened. All of us who are students know they are making a great decision, but I can't imagine making it from their perspective. They probably have zero emotional ties to the school as of now, won't get a chance to compete for a conference championship or bowl game, but somehow still value the Penn State brand and education after everything that has happened. Unreal.

Still, I've felt embarrassed so many times in the past few weeks:

  •  When I replayed this video of students reacting in the HUB this morning to the NCAA sanctions about 10 times, I shook my head and facepalmed every time. What were these people expecting would happen? Did they expect a slap on the wrist? Even though half of these students are likely summer session college freshman who know nothing (I hope), how can you react like that? Seriously, how can another human being legitimately react like that? I don't even know what to say about this video. Screencap of some of the reaction (although the sounds in the actual video are crucial):
    I wish I didn't know who the girl in this photo is, but I do.  (Photo: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

  • Apparently: these signs were left by the Joe Paterno statue before it was removed:
    Seriously? Photo:

Not that anyone would know this, but the Freeh report does not prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Joe Paterno was completely at fault. Disclaimer: I'll save the detailed analysis, but I personally believe that he was based on what I read. However, it is not set in stone as most think. In either case, showing the kind of unequivocal support for Joe Paterno seen in the picture at this point is just not okay.

Regardless of ESPN's take, we still don't need people doing this kind of stuff right now.

  • I don't know why Rodney Erickson pretended that the topic of the statue removal was even a debate. Honestly, like it was even a "decision." Picture this headline: "Penn State President Rodney Erickson elects to leave statue of Joe Paterno, who covered up child abuse, standing." Clearly that wasn't going to happen. Why couldn't Rodney have immediately said that the statue was coming down and being stored until further notice? Also, we were hearing reports that Penn State was considering how the NCAA would view their decision regarding the statue. Couldn't we have made just one decision in this entire scandal on our own terms? Instead, we had to sit through several days of that, and hear about his considerations to put the statue at the library. What sense does that even make?


  • On that same note, where will the line be drawn in memorializing JoePa? Why should people be okay with being reminded of his mistake if the statue had been placed at the library instead of the stadium? Why should I be okay with seeing his name on the library, but not going to a sub shop named Joegies? His painting will likely remain on the local mural, but all JoePa related memorabilia will surely no longer be sold. Seriously, I want to know an exact reason for why the statue can't be public while other things can be. I don't care if the statue is standing or not, I'm just legitimately curious at this point. All I want is some kind of consistency: Displaying JoePa images in State College should either become a much lesser version of the swastika in Germany (just a comparison, relax) or no problem at all, with no in between.
  • People on both sides really need to stop tossing the word, "victims" around when trying to make points. I'm trying to tread lightly here, because the victims are the focus of everything going on, but using that as an excuse because it's a buzzword for every argument is more disrespectful to them than anything, in my opinion. I've heard multiple people casually dismiss the NCAA sanctions, statue removal, and idea of changing uniforms because it "doesn't serve the victims." I've also heard of people dismissing any discussion or analysis of Joe Paterno, Penn State's wrongdoings, and the same aforementioned arguments because it "doesn't serve the victims." I don't need to analyze this; everyone just stop.
  • Huge issue right now: College students from other schools, high schoolers, small time comedians, and people in general are both bashing Penn Staters for being child rapists, and already making jokes about the scandal like it's funny. How ironic is it that these people tear apart all of us associated with Penn State, whether it be a student, fan, or general supporter, about something that they think is light enough to joke about? People are already prepared to joke about this 8 months later when it never should be? Call us what you want, but Penn Staters at least get this scandal and what's at the core of it. We raised over 10 million for children this year (which is a fundraiser we have been doing years and years before the scandal) while you tried to be funny and impress your friends. There are so many tweets I don't even have to list examples.

I know a lot has been said under this point, but everything needed to be said. I'm not even sure how to summarize it. Penn State's image would have been stained even if they had immediately reported the evil that is Jerry Sandusky. Unfortunately, that stain would have been absolutely nothing compared to the shredded carcass of an image that is now lying in the sewers. It's just disappointing that our leaders weren't able to at least see that if they were going to completely ignore any typical feelings of moral obligation.

5. Acceptance

I know there has been a ton of controversy in the past few days regarding the sanctions handed down to Penn State by the NCAA that were automatically accepted by President Erickson.

Honestly, I don't see how everyone isn't as thrilled as I am with the NCAA's ruling. Personally, I would have been okay with nearly anything short of the death penalty.

Yes, the very original opinion that "it just punishes people that had nothing to do with the scandal" is true. I agree 100%, at least with the technical accuracy of the statement.

However, I haven't really heard any alternate proposals from those on that side of the argument. Also, please don't say that the alternative was no punishment. The sanctions still punish the university as a whole, which is completely legitimate in my opinion.

Penn State and the NCAA were both in an impossible position here. The NCAA, while probably overstepping its bounds in handling actual criminal wrongdoing, absolutely had to dish out some kind of punishment to Penn State. Had they not done so, every ruling for any recruiting violation or petty infraction would be ridiculed in the future.

Similarly, Penn State and President Erickson would look petty challenging any sanction short of the death penalty handed down. "Yes, our university just covered up child abuse for 10 years that will forever affect the kids involved, but we don't think these penalties are fair." Exactly.

To all Penn State supporters: we should be happy with this ruling!!! We only got twice as many years of bowl bans as USC for a scandal that was infinitely times worse (yes, human indecency compared to recruiting violations equates to infinity). We lost some scholarships and have to pay a fine that is chump change for Penn State over a five year period (or even a one year period).

The only controversial aspect should be the vacation of Joe Paterno's wins. As much as it hurts, I'm completely okay with this from a logical standpoint. Had our administrators and JoePa reported the event in 1998 (or 2001), it would have eliminated the pristine Penn State and Paterno image at that exact point in time. Instead, we continued to recruit for 10 additional years under the guise of a traditional, integrity-based PSU program. In these 10 years, we likely would not have landed the same recruits had the scandal been correctly reported, which directly contributes to the win totals.

More importantly, I don't completely understand why people care so much about the alteration of Joe's wins. I feel as if most people who are upset are avid Penn State students, fans, or supporters, and would likely have seen many of these wins in person. When it comes down it, are you going to remember those games for the "W," "L," or "*" that comes next to them in the history books, or for the game itself? Similarly, no college football analyst from now until the end of time will unconditionally refer to Bobby Bowden as the FBS leader in wins, regardless of what the records say, so that's not something to be concerned about.

Even with all of that being said, I really think that it's time to enter the acceptance phase of the process now that the NCAA sanctions have been handed down.

Yes, Penn State football might not be that good for the next few years. But who really cares at this point? We are talking about wins and losses in a game of football.

Just think of it this way: At least Penn State students get to watch their favorite team at Beaver Stadium next year. At least all of the local businesses who rely on the masses descending upon State College 8 times a year, as well as buying football gear year-round, will not be affected. At least our team, especially the seniors, get to stick together and help us kick off a new era. At least Bill O'Brien, who seems like a great guy by all accounts, wasn't denied the chance to coach after going out on a limb for Penn State.

At least Penn State can serve as an example and potentially prevent situations like this at other college programs.

At least Jerry Sandusky is in prison, a place he should've been long ago.

At least it's finally over.

Everyone: it's time to accept.

We have to accept what happened here, while still fully knowing that we'd never want to be anywhere else.

Maybe we'll become a good football team again one day, but that seems trivial right now.

All I'm hoping for is that maybe one day Penn State will become Happy Valley again.


Nick Pournaras is entering his Senior year at Penn State University.


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