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Column: Players dress down trustees

They knew Joe. They knew him a little differently than most of us, having played for Joe Paterno during one of the six decades he roamed the sideline, and if the way the coach was ousted and then portrayed by certain investigators bothered some of us, well, it bothered them a little differently.

Five of Paterno's former players gave Penn State's board of trustees an earful on Friday.

The five former Nittany Lions who spoke to ("reprimanded" might be a more accurate term) the university's board of trustees Friday were not household names in Penn State football lore. You probably watched Mickey Shuler in the NFL or saw his son play a few years ago, and some of the older guys might remember Tommy Donchez. Mark Battaglia, Phil LaPorta and Daniel Wallace weren't as renowned, just big, tough, smart guys who, like most of Paterno's players, went on to success in other walks of life, carrying with them no small amount of pride in the school and the program that helped mold them.

Friday, they made it clear, in three-minute increments and no uncertain terms, that the way the trustees have handled the events of the last two years -- their accepting of the Freeh report and the NCAA sanctions, in particular -- has tested that pride.

"You have asked all of us to move forward as if the questions of fairness and truth have been settled," said Donchez, a fullback for Paterno in the 1970s. "Obviously, nothing has been settled."

Shuler minced no words, either, saying he felt the interests of Penn State were being "placed second to corporate or politically placed agendas."

"Accepting the sanctions to save public face so we can quickly distance ourselves from the situation helps no one," Shuler said. "The culture of Penn State that I know would lead by example, stand up to the NCAA, and ask for the sanctions to be removed."

Battaglia, who played on Paterno's first national championship team, didn't name names but took issue with the trustees who played for Paterno -- a list that includes Paul Suhey and now-athletic director David Joyner -- and, as he said, "knew Joe like we knew Joe."

"And yet, they wouldn't take his call," Battaglia said. "They wouldn't make a call. They sat around silently. Or maybe they led the effort to fire Joe. Why? Was it personal? Personal disappointment? Did they let a personal issue potentially lead to a $100 million debacle?"

The players offered some ideas for change as well. Wallace pointed out the process they -- and the other alumni who spoke during the public portion of Friday's meeting in Hershey -- had to go through to be heard for a couple of minutes and suggested the board set aside more time for "public discourse." He also believed the structure of the board itself would benefit from some examination.

"The size of the board is too large and cumbersome and unresponsive," Wallace said.

LaPorta was less concerned about the size of the board than by which trustees would be a part of its future.

"Nothing short of the majority of you stepping down will be able to apply the healing salve to a deep wound," LaPorta said.

But if the majority of the trustees have immediate plans to step down, they're not making them known. Nor are they in any hurry, it seems, to question many of their own decisions nor the shaky conclusions drawn by the Freeh report. If anything, they are taking a harder stance on the issues.

Kenneth Frazier called the report commissioned by the Paterno family "largely non-responsive or irrelevant to the understanding of the documents provided by the Freeh report" and was steadfast in his defense of the latter, though he pointed out that the board "has taken no actions based on the findings of the report" and "the board has not voted to accept the report and its findings and conclusions."

"The facts are the facts and the contemporaneous emails are among the most important evidence produced," Frazier said. "1998 and 2001 are different, but the documents appear to show, in varying degrees, that people who were in a position to protect kids did not do so."

Frazier and the bulk of the trustees want the university to be accountable for the failure to report the sexual abuse crimes of which Jerry Sandusky was convicted. Many of Paterno's former players, and a sizable chunk of other alumni, want the trustees to be accountable for what, in their minds, were decisions that were hasty at best and irresponsible and self-preserving at worst.

The line between the university's leadership and a decent proportion of its alumni (it is important to note that there were two speakers who expressed a desire to "move forward" Friday, and they likely represent a good amount of alumni as well) is no less sharply drawn now than it was after Paterno's dismissal or the delivery and acceptance of the sanctions. Both sides say they want to move forward, but both have different ideas of what that means and how that needs to be done.

You have to imagine that Paterno would have been proud of the way his former players spoke so passionately in defense of him and, especially, their alma mater Friday. But you also have to wonder if he would have been saddened by the growing divide between the people who lead his beloved university and the students and alumni who believe those leaders still have much to answer for.

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