Penn State’s Pre-Game Vigil: Focusing on the Victims — And Worrying About the Fallout

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Abby Drey / Centre Daily Times / AP

Thousands of students, community members, and Penn State fans gather near the Old Main Lawn for a candlelight vigil on Friday, Nov. 11, 2011.

In spite of the sordid events roiling Penn State University, it almost felt like a familiar fall Friday afternoon on the State College campus. Penn State students, alums, and locals snapped up Nittany Lion gear at the campus bookstore, where the names of Penn State’s leading rushers and tacklers are inscribed on the stairs. John Lindow, general manager of the book store, said there was a run on Joe Paterno merchandise, like t-shirts that said “Coach Paterno, There’s Only One Thing: Thank You . For Your Giving, Dedication and What You Helped Make My University.”

Still, the minds of many students were far from focused on Penn State’s home finale against Nebraska on Saturday. First of all, they want you to know, the morons who rioted in protest of Joe Paterno’s firing Wednesday night represent just a sliver of the student population. The victims of sexual abuse allegedly carried out by longtime Paterno assistant Jerry Sandusky (who maintains his innocence) are also foremost on their minds. Outside the bookstore, a group of Penn State cheerleaders were handing out blue “stop child abuse” placards to be held high at Saturday’s game. Junior Jacob Katz, a kinesiology major, was collecting cash for a child abuse charity. Both shoppers and passers-by dropped a steady flow of singles and fives in his bucket. One grassroots group of Penn State alumni have launched a site, proudtobeapennstater.com, seeking to raise over $500,000 – “one dollar for each of the 557,000 Penn State alumni” – for the anti-sexual violence organization, RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network).

(PHOTOS: The Career of Joe Paterno)

But as much as students, faculty and alumni are thinking about the victims, they also share practical concerns about the fallout from the scandal. Could the stigma of this case, some students are wondering, actually hurt the credibility of the school in the job market? “A lot of people have asked if I was worried whether or not I was going to be able to get a job in four or five years,” says Catlyn McGaugh, a freshman from Cleveland who plans to major in music education. “It upsets me that something related to what a football coach did in 2002 could be involved in my future. I don’t know how that factors in.”

The Sandusky case has consumed the school’s psyche, so much so that students are stressed about their futures. “The world is crumbling in front of us,” says Kyle Harris, a senior who organized Friday night’s candlelight vigil for the alleged victims of Sandusky’s sexual abuse. “It’s scary, it’s creepy. As a senior entering the job market, I’ve thought out the impact. I know I’m not going to be able to go into interviews without people asking about it. It’s crossed my mind. It’s crossed a lot of seniors’ minds.”

The students’ concerns about the scandal’s impact on their job prospects may seem a little far-fetched, but there’s little denying that the Sandusky affair could hurt Penn State’s reputation in other ways. Alumni donations could definitely take a hit, especially if top football recruits find Penn State less attractive and the school has some losing years in the post-Paterno era. When asked if Sandusky could impact alumni donations, Jim Lyons, a Penn St. alum – Class of ’76 – responds, “Absolutely, man. It’s a pride thing,” He’s up from Philadelphia for the game, walking around College Avenue in downtown State College, right across from campus. “It’s going to be going from pride to shame.”

And if football loses its luster, State College’s local businesses might see less foot traffic on all-important gameday weekends. Those Nittany Lion T-shirts won’t be so cool anymore. Lindow, the bookstore general manager, is worried. “This is a business situation you would never imagine arising,” he says.

(PHOTOS: Penn State Riots After Paterno’s Firing)

To its credit, the university put aside its practical concerns on Friday night to pay a proper tribute to the alleged victims of sexual abuse. Thousands of students, alums and locals convened outside the University’s Old Main building, and held a candlelight vigil in honor of the victims. “This is the best experience I’ve had in college,” said Zach McCornac, a senior, after it was over. “We got to show we’re not just about a couple of people at a riot. That’s important.” Still, McCornac says he’ll always support Paterno; by agreeing with the decision to fire Paterno, fellow Brad Bauer knows he’s in the minority on campus. “Is showed we were serious about the victims,” says Bauer. “We put them before football.”

Bauer called the vigil “just what we needed.” It had a funereal feel. The crowd sung “Imagine,” the Beatles song, and “Fix You” by Coldplay. One of the organizers read a letter from an anonymous student who detailed her sexual abuse – and thoughts of suicide. Another student shared her sexual abuse story. A Penn State alum and middle school teacher fought tears as he spoke. “We are Penn State,” he said. “And we are hurt. And we are sorry. All that matters right now, we are here for you.”

LIST: Seven Key Players in the Penn State Abuse Case

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