The Firing of Joe Paterno: Why the Penn State Unrest Was Senseless

Viewpoint: The student reaction to Paterno’s dismissal did Penn State no favors

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Police try to control the crowd that filled the streets after Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was fired by the school's board of trustees on Nov. 9, 2011

It was nine years too late for the child victims of Jerry Sandusky’s alleged sexual abuse. But finally, someone at Penn State stepped up.

We’re not talking about many of the school’s students, who reacted to football coach Joe Paterno’s dismissal on Wednesday night by rioting on campus. The school’s board of trustees, however, did the right thing by letting Paterno go. Earlier that day, Paterno had announced that he would step down at the end of the season. “At this moment, the board of trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status,” Paterno had said in a statement, which now reads like a failed preemptive strike to save his hide. Paterno probably didn’t help his case by lecturing the school’s board. “They have far more important matters to address,” Paterno said. “I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.” His subsequent reaction to being fired indicated that he wasn’t 100% on board with the decision. “I am disappointed with the board of trustees’ decision, but I have to accept it,” the 84-year-old said in a statement. “A tragedy occurred, and we all have to have patience to let the legal process proceed.”

(LIST: Seven Key Players in the Penn State Abuse Case)

By failing to alert authorities that Sandusky, his longtime assistant, allegedly raped a 10-year-old boy in the Penn State football showers, Paterno simplified the board’s decision, indeed. Penn State president Graham Spanier, another popular figure on campus, was also fired. Though Spanier, Paterno and top officials at Penn State knew of the criminal allegations against Sandusky, he was still granted unfettered access to the football program. “The past several days have been absolutely terrible for the entire Penn State community,” board vice chair John Surma said during a news conference. “But the outrage that we feel is nothing compared to the physical and psychological suffering that allegedly took place.”

(LIST: Six Ways Joe Paterno Infiltrated Penn State Culture)

If Paterno had coached Penn State’s final home game of the 2011 season, against Nebraska, it would have haunted the school for a long time. Imagine millions of television viewers watching Paterno coach from his press-box perch. What would they be thinking? This man let a possible sex offender roam free. This man, the face of the university for 46 years, the winningest coach in major college football history, a legendary figure on campus (a library is even named after him) passed a claim of sexual conduct between a man and a child up the chain of command and never followed through on it. The school’s priorities are such that it would permit this man to represent the university, which has more than 45,000 students and a proud academic tradition, on such a public stage. No sane executive would make that error and further damage an important institution.

The student reaction to Paterno’s dismissal did Penn State no favors. (The board made a good call by firing Paterno. But announcing it at 10 p.m. wasn’t smart.) Students swarmed the campus to support Paterno, chanting, “Joe can’t go,” “We want Joe” and “F— the trustees.” The scene got chaotic: students ripped down light posts and threw rocks at a news van, smashing its windows. They then flipped the van over. About 100 police officers in riot gear confronted the students, using pepper spray to control the crowd, but there were no reports of arrests.

You can chalk up a portion of this behavior to college silliness. But a large swath of students felt wronged by Paterno’s dismissal. If there’s one image that speaks to America’s twisted relationship with college sports, it’s the Penn State pro-Paterno rallies. Football before all. Lives were likely ruined at the hands of a possible predator, thanks in no small part to Paterno. Yet it’s Paterno who must go out with dignity.

(PHOTOS: Riots Rock Penn State After Paterno Firing)

Speaking outside his home, Paterno remarked, “Right now I’m not the coach. And I’ve got to get used to that. After 61 years, I’ve got to get used to it. I appreciate it. Let me think it through.” His wife Sue teared up as she blew kisses to some students on the lawn. “You’re all so sweet. And I guess we have to go beat Nebraska without being there. We love you all. Go Penn State,” she said.

In a case like this, it seems trite to attempt to measure Paterno’s legacy. So let’s just go with some gut reactions. In sports, it’s hard to think of a more shocking fall from grace. Paterno did a lot of good, for a lot of people. He gave over $4 million to Penn State for a spiritual center and a health clinic. He’s in the Special Olympics Hall of Fame because of his work with that organization. But his actions in this case were shockingly negligent, so we can’t view Paterno as a role model anymore. All those wins, they don’t seem to mean much.

(MORE: Can We Trust Coaches with Our Kids?)

When discussing the worst sports scandals ever, Penn State is now in the discussion. Forget about Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson and Tiger Woods. That’s small stuff. Athletes have been convicted of murder, in court and in the nation’s collective mind (see O.J. Simpson). But if the charges against Sandusky hold — it’s telling that neither Paterno nor anyone else seems to be screaming about his innocence — how much worse are these crimes against children? And it’s because Paterno has been such a positive presence for so many years that his negligence in this scandal seems so unfathomable.

Canning Paterno was an easy call. For Penn State, moving on will be much harder. Reaching out to the victims might be a start.

PHOTOS: Joe Paterno’s Career

ARCHIVES: The Nittany Lion King

Sean Gregory is a staff writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @seanmgregory. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.