Commentary: Don’t Riot for Joe Paterno

Commentary: Don’t Riot for Joe Paterno

Students who rioted after Penn State coach Joe Paterno was fired were wrong--and may ultimately discourage sexual assault victims from coming forward.

Published November 10, 2011

Amid perhaps the biggest scandal to rock college sports in American history, legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired last night.


According to grand jury testimony, Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator for Paterno, was caught assaulting a child in the Penn State locker room in 2002. But rather than go to the police about the assault, Paterno, who found out about the incident from an assistant coach, told only Penn State athletic director Tim Curley. Curley eventually told Sandusky that he couldn’t bring any more children onto the Penn State campus — something he did regularly as head of the charity “Second Mile — but the administrator didn’t go to the police either. Instead, everyone turned a blind eye toward Sandusky’s alleged abuses, and now he’s being charged with molesting eight young boys.

After the news broke that Paterno had been canned, some Penn State students rioted, overturning a news van and smashing apart the campus, apparently in solidarity with Paterno, who had coached the Nittany Lions for 46 seasons. In doing so, those students not only humiliated Sandusky’s alleged victims, they also served as a vivid reminder of why it’s so hard for many victims of sexual assault to come forward in the first place.

More than half of all rapes and sexual assaults are never reported to the police, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. Sometimes that’s for fear of retaliation from the perpetrator, but oftentimes it’s because the victim feels ashamed, vulnerable and worried that the public won’t believe him or her, especially if their attacker was a very well respected person.

In the case of Sandusky, a Penn State legend, and Paterno, a national sports icon, it’s pretty obvious why it took so long for Sandusky to get busted: His victims were children terrified of a very powerful man and his very powerful friends. When a bunch of drunken college kids tore apart their school to stand up in support of Paterno, they also tacitly struck fear into the hearts of other potential victims, who may now think twice about reporting their rape for fear of upsetting people.

Paterno’s not the victim here. He had a chance to do what was right nine years ago, and he blew it. If anyone is worth rioting for, it’s the at-risk kids from Sandusky’s charity group, who were taken advantage of by someone who had promised to watch over them.



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(Photo: Pat Little/Reuters)

Written by Cord Jefferson


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