September 6, 2016

When Garrett Ross, a Penn State senior who’s editor in chief of the student-run daily newspaper, saw a university press release in his inbox, it didn’t initially strike him as notable. Then came a friend’s text message — and a decision that caused an uproar in Happy Valley.

Within the release on various matters was almost a passing reference to honoring Joe Paterno, the legendary and now-tarnished late football coach, at a home game on Sept. 17.

“We immediately recognized this would be a big story and got somebody to write the initial (tale),” he recalled Monday. “Then what was kind of funny was that we had already written the next day’s editorial and I was in the process of editing it.”

That got scrapped and he texted junior Lauren David, the opinion editor of the 120-person Daily Collegian, who was in class. He sent her a link to the announcement.

“As soon as I saw it, I realized it was more pressing than the original editorial,” said Davis. This simply was not the right time to be honoring Paterno amid the evidence that he knew about suspicions that an assistant coach was sexually abusing young boys.

What resulted was an editorial that inspired perhaps predictable anger among the legion of die-hard Paterno supporters who remain furious that he was fired in 2011. Their anger has not subsided even after his death (in 2012) and despite growing evidence of his knowledge about Sandusky’s misdeeds.

“Penn State needs a reality check,” she wrote. “This is not 2011. We need to move on.”

The editorial delineated the differing context in which the Paterno matter is viewed by current students and many alumni. It was a distinction that riled alums who flooded social media and the comments section of the five-day-a-week daily with harsh rebukes that gave Ross and colleagues pause.

“Currently, the only associations these classes of students have with Paterno are reading and hearing his name tied with Jerry Sandusky’s and lawsuits or coming from the mouths of Penn State alumni who can’t accept that their time here is no longer.”

“This is our Penn State. It is a Penn State without Joe Paterno. It is a Penn State that is still trying to rebuild, make amends and propel forward.”

“The response has been overwhelming,” says Davis. “These very vocal alumni who have commented on Facebook, Twitter, The Collegian website and a lot not very kind. It’s coming from fact that I have upset their love of the university. On flip side, lots of emails have been much more civil even if not in flat out agreement with me.”

Although the Daily Collegian doesn’t typically release detailed analytics, Ross says the Paterno piece has already been viewed “about 30 times more” than the average editorial.

Among the typical responses that might be reprinted for family consumption was that of Susan Roach, identified as chief executive officer of Rock Modular Builders and Construction, who commented on the paper’s site, “‪Joe Paterno being honored is much more than remembering a one time coach who is no longer a part of Penn State University. I am proud of how the majority of Penn State Alumni have never wavered in our support for Joe Paterno.”

“Lauren because you were not exposed to this man who gave all his efforts to making Penn State the university that it is today maybe you just do not understand Coach Paterno’s contribution to the excellence of a Penn State education and not JUST the football program. Someday Lauren you too will be an alumnus of our beloved university. I fear you will not have a person such as Joe Paterno to look up to and remember how he cared for every Penn State student, not JUST the football team. “

Ross said that the paper’s editors were wrestling with the response all weekend. At first he wondered if they’d erred, but then realized that wasn’t the case and was proud of the work of Davis, his fellow native of York, Pennsylvania.

“As we get the responses, we realize there are very different viewpoints. I’m a senior and mine was the first class without a direct connection to Paterno. It’s a little odd for me to hear all this. Like we said Friday, we are trying to move on and inhabit this university in best way we can. On a football level, it’s a long time since he coached on the field. I don’t view Penn State football as this team that belong to Paterno and owes him anything.”

Said Davis, who has received about 80 emails, many negative, “The majority of people I talk to know some of what he did, but beyond that want to enjoy attending the Penn State they know. For a lot, there’s indifference, for better or for worse. Maybe in the future there may be a way to bring him back in a way that doesn’t offend anyone.”

So has this been a learning experience in any fashion for them?

“My biggest takeaway is that I can’t forget that my university is also the alumni’s’ university,” said Davis. “Even though we may not see eye to eye on everything, don’t want it to sees as if I am taking away their right to love Penn State. But want them to see how I love it, too.”

After Lauren finished writing the editorial, Davis said, he told his colleagues they should prepare for some comments but didn’t anticipate the ferocity that would follow.

“Most important thing I have learned is that, at end of day, we are totally proud of the work we do, even if that means apologizing or correcting an error.”

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
New York City native, graduate of Collegiate School, Amherst College and Roosevelt University. Married to Cornelia Grumman, dad of Blair and Eliot. National columnist, U.S.…
James Warren

More News

Back to News