Pennsylvania senators dropped their support for former football coach Joe Paterno as a nominee for the Presidential Medal of Freedom following allegations that his assistant coach sexually abused boys.
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey and Democratic Sen. Bob Casey announced Thursday that they are withdrawing previous letters to the White House, in which they nominated the legendary Pennsylvania State University coach for the highest civilian award.
The announcement was made the same day Paterno was fired from the university’s coaching staff.
In a statement found on Casey’s Senate website, the two stated, “In light of the recent events in State College, we are rescinding our support for the nomination of Joe Paterno for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. We hope the proper authorities will move forward with their investigation without delay. Penn State is an important institution in our commonwealth. We should turn our attention to the victims of these atrocious crimes and ensure they get the help they need. Our hearts and prayers go out to them and their families.”
Penn State is currently under intense scrutiny after former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with sexual assault of eight underage boys from 1994 to 2009. At least one of the instances of abuse occurred in a Penn State locker room.
In March 2002, then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary reportedly witnessed Sandusky witnessed sexually assaulting a nude male in the locker room shower. McQueary reported the incident to Paterno, who then notified the athletic director, Tim Curley, and Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz.
The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Penn State to find out whether it failed to report the on campus incident as required by federal law.
Since allegations went public, the university has begun to clean house. Paterno and University President Graham Spanier were both fired Thursday.
Penn State Board Vice Chair John Surma explained the firings in a press conference, saying, “'The Penn State board of trustees tonight decided it is in the best interest of the university to have a change in leadership to deal with the difficult issues that we are facing.''
He continued, "The past several days have been absolutely terrible for the entire Penn State community. But the outrage that we feel is nothing compared to the physical and psychological suffering that allegedly took place."
The news has also greatly affected the 84-year-old Paterno. He has been a coach for 61 years – 46 of those years were for Penn State – and he holds the record for winning the most games of any coach in major college football history, according to Fox Sports.
Sens. Toomey and Casey and Pennsylvania Congressman Glenn Thompson also praised the coach’s character in their initial nomination letter, labeling him as loyal and as a man who is “committed to reaching goals without sacrificing the ideals that are central to higher education.”
However, the allegations against Sandusky have mired Paterno’s career in scandal and suspicion.
Paterno was seen crying early that day, offering to retire at the end of the athletic year.
He later released a statement, explaining, “I am disappointed with the Board of Trustees' decision, but I have to accept it. A tragedy occurred, and we all have to have patience to let the legal process proceed. I appreciate the outpouring of support, but want to emphasize that everyone should remain calm and please respect the university, its property and all that we value.”
Fox Sports reported that Paterno’s wife tearfully blew kisses to supporters who gathered in front of their house after the announcement.
Thompson, who did not sign the Senate statement, told Politico of nomination withdrawal, “The focus should not be on Joe Paterno’s nomination or politicians trying to distance themselves from him.”
He continued, “It’s about the victims and the future of Penn State.”