Centre County Commissioner Steve Dershem said the NCAA acted as “judge, jury and executioner for the entire local community” when imposing unprecedented sanctions Monday against Penn State.
Community leaders, including Dershem, hope residents can now begin to move forward and heal, but anticipate negative impacts — in part, to local businesses, university admissions, real estate, and the university’s football players.
“I think it’s going to cost livelihoods, jobs,” Dershem said. “I’m not dismissing that there are victims, but I think you are creating an entire new class of problems.”
Commissioner Chris Exarchos said the sanctions — a $60 million fine, four-year football postseason ban and five years probation, loss of some scholarships, and the vacating of all wins from 1998 to 2011 — may not fix anything, despite the serious nature of the situation.
“I think we just created another set of victims,” Exarchos said. “All the young people that came to Penn State to play football have now had the program basically gutted.”
The sanctions follow former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s conviction on 45 counts related to the sexual abuse of boys, and the release of the Louis Freeh report, condemning top university administrators, including former head coach Joe Paterno, for covering up Sandusky’s abuse.
“I think there should have been sanctions,” Exarchos said. “I think Penn State should be held accountable, especially the people involved. But they are all gone. To penalize these young people that had nothing to do with it — I think the young people are victims as well.”
Dershem and others said the impact won’t be confined to the university.
“I’m shocked the NCAA felt it necessary to punish the entire community,” he said. “I’m very disappointed in the NCAA. They way overstepped their bounds, and didn’t get any input from locals about what’s going on here in Centre County.”
Dershem said the NCAA fell “into the trap of hysteria,” acting rashly without considering the consequences for the rest of the community.
“They are needlessly and mindlessly impacting students, businesses and the local community,” he said. “I feel bad for all the folks caught in the cross fire of something they had nothing to do with.
Those businesses and Penn State in general are going to pay the price for a handful on individuals.”
State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham agreed that there’s “no question” that there will be impacts, but felt optimistic about the students who are speaking out in support of their school.
“We’re here because of Penn State,” she said. “There are concerns about people coming to our town. I know our businesses all rely on the tourists that come to our games and come to visit Penn State.”
But Exarchos said the scandal shows the county can’t continue to rely so heavily on the university, and must work to build a “broader base.”
“I think we need to redouble our efforts with the chambers in the county, the commissioners, all elected leaders, to bring other employment opportunities to the county,” he said. “For a long time, I think we’ve been a company town. We’ve relied on Penn State. I don’t think that’s all going to go away. But I think (the sanctions) will have an impact.”
Ben Haagen, the new president of the Centre County Grange Encampment and Fair, grew up in the county. He worried first that students such as his niece, an honors student and majorette, will feel the consequences of the sanctions, particularly the steep fine and the loss of bowl game revenue.
“It’s going to hurt the students, if nothing else,” he said. “It’s going to drive up the cost of tuition. I think we’re going to have less people be able to afford the university. They’re punishing the entire university.”
And by doing so, Haagen said, an area tied economically and culturally to the university may suffer.
“It’s an icon of our community,” he said. “It’s woven into our every fabric. It’s sad.”
Harris Township Manager Amy Farkas said that bond may be a starting point for change. She said the region’s municipal managers likely will meet in the coming days to discuss the sanctions and their potential impacts.
“We need to start moving forward, in whatever fashion,” she said. “I think we need to start looking at ways to make State College a town that relies on more than one economic driver.”
Ways the region has started to do that include considering economic development as a region, something on which the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County also is focused.
“We have a lot of things going for us,” Farkas said, including art, music and theater. “I think we need to look at our strengths right now, and not weaknesses. And I think we’re all still reeling from this.”
College Township Manager Adam Brumbaugh said Penn State is “greater” than the football program.
“While we are rightly humbled by the NCAA sanctions, we are optimistic that Penn State the academic institution will continue to thrive and remain a significant, positive economic force in the area and within the commonwealth.”
Brumbaugh said he thinks residents will need some time to absorb everything that has happened here.
“In the near term, there could be some economic implications for the area,” he said. “But on the whole, I think at some point, from an economic standpoint, that the region will in fact recover. The question is, how long will all of that really take.”
Centre County Commissioner Michael Pipe agreed the focus now should be on the future.
“What happened in terms of the Freeh report, the Sandusky trial, the NCAA sanctions — what’s happened has happened,” Pipe said. “It’s important to piece together how to move forward as a community, and a university.”
One way local groups and individuals are trying to address healing and unity is through “Our Community Day,” which is set for October to coincide with State College’s annual community resource fair.
The movement, started in April, has sought broad support to join a united front of shared values and a commitment to recovering from the scandal that has plagued the region since November.
Ron Filippelli, a member of Borough Council and on the board of the Downtown State College Improvement District, has worked on the effort and said the NCAA’s announcement “heightens the need” for it.
He said he thinks a majority of the community share the values in the covenant written to promote healing, which includes “respecting, caring for, and protecting the most vulnerable in our community,” and “adhering to a code of conduct that values honesty, accountability, high ethical standards, and transparency.”
Filippelli said those values have been “badly portrayed” throughout the scandal.
“As if, somehow, we have a whole county full of guilty people, which is nonsense,” he said.
And Dershem said community members will “pay the price” for the acts of a few.
“I’m not minimizing what happened to (Sandusky’s) victims, but making another whole new class of victims doesn’t solve the situation,” he said.
“It’s tough moving forward with a lodestone around your neck,” he continued. “Our community has already been hurt enough. We have been rocked.”
But Bellefonte Borough Manager Ralph Stewart said leaders will “make the best” of the situation.
“Our government and business leaders have endured much adversity and this will be another opportunity to look at what we do, how we do it, and make changes as needed,” he said.
Goreham said many university alumni are angry and have experienced a “tumultuous” time, but that they also are loyal and have a sense of connection.
“I think it’s going to be rough times for a few years here,” she said. “I think we’re going to experience some hardships. And, eventually, we’ll all recover.”
Staff writers Mike Dawson and Chris Rosenblum contributed to this report.