Late Wednesday night, the Penn State University Board of Trustees announced its rejection of legendary head coach Joe Paterno’s offer to resign at the end of the season and fired him and the university president. However, the large gathering of students in front of Paterno’s house initially as a show of support for their beloved and longtime coach slowly transformed into a riot. Public utilities along the street were damaged, and, in a scene frequently replayed on media outlets, a news van was flipped over and beaten.
Violent rioting is an easy thing to condemn. The various Occupy protests over the past few months have showed the power of nonviolent protest and America’s collective distaste for violent confrontations. The outburst at Penn State can be, and has been, criticized as supporting a man who did nothing to follow up on a case of molestation of children over the past nine years that he knew about. In these two important senses, the rioting was reprehensible and embarrassing for a storied and respected institution, and it did a tremendous disservice to the man the protesters were trying to defend.
Many journalists have criticized the protesters and have characterized the campus as appearing to care more about football than about the victims of the alleged crimes. Yet the media’s recent focus on the rioting itself, the image of the flipped news van and the thousands of students marching the street has much the same effect. The victims should be the center of the story.
Most students at Penn State did not march, and most of those who marched did so peacefully. Judging the entire campus by the actions of a few of its students is unfair. While those responsible for the violence should be punished, they should not be given the power to change the narrative by outraged journalists.
The story of Paterno’s firing can be seen as a series of knee-jerk reactions. The Board of Trustees overreacted by immediately firing Paterno, fearing the power of a sex abuse scandal; students overreacted by rioting; and many in the media have overreacted by stressing the absurdity of the protest and further distorting the real issue: the victims.