Six prominent Penn State football players, including defensive backfield stars Anthony Scirrotto and Justin King, were charged today in connection with a brawl four weeks ago at an off-campus party in State College, Pa.
Scirrotto, a first-team all-Big Ten Conference safety as a sophomore in 2006, was at the center of the March 31-April 1 incident, according to State College police and Centre County authorities.
The 20-year-old from West Deptford, Gloucester County, was charged with a number of offenses, including burglary, criminal trespass, criminal solicitation and simple assault. Those were the most serious charges, and they also were filed against backup defensive tackle Chris Baker, a redshirt freshman last season.
King, a second-team all-Big Ten cornerback as a Nittany Lions sophomore, was charged with criminal trespass, disorderly conduct and lesser offenses. The other players, each of whom was charged at least with criminal trespass, were backup cornerback Lydell Sargeant and linebackers Tyrell Sales and Jerome Hayes, both of whom were expected to see considerable action in 2007.
All were arraigned today and released on bail.
Speculation about possible repercussions on the 2007 season have darkened the traditional spring optimism in Happy Valley, where last Saturday a record 71,000 fans turned out to watch Penn State's annual Blue-White game at Beaver Stadium.
Blog posters worried about the arrests "destroying the football season." And a university spokesman told the Centre Daily Times that a letter had been sent to the residents of the apartment, asking them to drop the charges. It was signed "The Voice of the Penn State Student Body."
According to an account pieced together from official reports and conversations with athletic-department sources who requested anonymity, the incident began late March 31 when passers-by insulted Scirrotto's girlfriend on a downtown State College street. The player was punched and his cell phone was knocked out of his hand at that time.
Scirrotto, who later told police that "you got to do what you got to do," then gathered several friends. They were refused admission to the College Avenue apartment where they knew the people involved in the initial scuffle were and where a party was taking place.
Scirrotto then allegedly summoned some of his teammates. At some point, 10 people, including all six players, barged into the residence and the brawl ensued. Several other players remained outside and will not be charged, authorities said.
Police said most of those involved had been drinking. They said at least five students were hit and two needed hospital treatment. One was hit by a beer bottle and another was kicked in the head.
Two non-athletes, Bernd Imle Jr. and Thomas Skalamera, were charged with lesser offenses in connection with the initial altercation at College Avenue and High Street.
Police did not say whether it was Imle who had insulted the player's girlfriend. But Imle told police he was kicked in the groin by a female.
Authorities said Imle then punched Scirrotto in the face, and when the player pulled out a cell phone, Skalamera knocked it away.
"This investigation is difficult due to the number of people involved," Centre County District Attorney Michael Madeira said. "Anything we do in this regard is going to be scrutinized, so we are making sure we are not jumping to conclusions either way."
None of the players could be reached for comment today, but Scirrotto's father, Tony, a West Deptford police officer, asked that judgment be reserved.
"My son's a good kid," he said. "All I know is he hasn't been proven guilty."
Coach Joe Paterno was unavailable for comment, but in a one-paragraph statement released by the athletic department, he said: "We are very concerned with the accusations made today and will determine the appropriate consequence for each player's status on the team when due process has transpired. Until such time, we will have no further comment regarding the situation."
At a news conference before last Saturday's Blue-White game, Paterno was asked whether the investigation - made public just days after the fight - was a distraction.
"You know more about it than I do," Paterno said. "It hasn't been a distraction yet. I don't know what's going to happen because I don't know anything that's going on. I'm trying to concentrate on the football squad. I never try to worry about things until I have to worry about them. I'm not sure I have anything to worry about here. I'm not sure. I don't know one way or the other."
During that news conference, Paterno said Scirrotto had been sitting out recent spring practices with a pinched nerve.
Though Paterno has grown more lenient in the face of players' off-the-field behavior in recent years, it seems likely that Scirrotto and the others could face suspensions or worse.
In 2005, linebacker Dan Connor, a Strath Haven graduate, was suspended for several games when he admitted making crank calls to an aging former football assistant.
Paterno's reputation had long been one of zero tolerance for players who were experiencing academic problems or were involved in off-the-field incidents. But in the last decade, he has given numerous players, even some charged in criminal matters, second chances.
He frequently has explained that in today's supercharged media environment, players often are judged too hastily and treated unfairly.
"In the old days," the 80-year-old coach has often said, "if a kid got in a little trouble, the police would call me. I'd go get the kid and then I'd run the heck out of him at practice the next few weeks. That would be it. Today, a kid drinks a few too many beers and it's in the headlines."
The incident, involving so many key defensive players, could seriously impact Penn State's 2007 season.
Scirrotto, a likely candidate for the Jim Thorpe Award that goes to the nation's top defensive back, led the Big Ten in interceptions with six last season.
King, 19, a high school all-American from Pittsburgh, had become one of the conference's best cover corners. And it was likely that either Hayes or Sales was going to start alongside Connor and Sean Lee at the third linebacker's spot, made vacant by the graduation of all-American Paul Posluszny.
The Nittany Lions, 9-4 and winners of the Outback Bowl last season, were to return 15 starters and 34 lettermen for a 2007 schedule that includes home games against Notre Dame (Sept. 8) and Ohio State (Oct. 27).
Today's news set off waves of panic and anger in Penn State football-related blogs and Web sites.
Some bloggers believed that Scirrotto and the others were being unfairly singled out because they were football players.
"They talk about not treating football players differently because they are football players," Todd Sponsler wrote on the 50-Yard Lion Blog. "Yet kids get beat up everyday on campuses across this nation - dis someone's girl and they beat you up."
A response posted there by someone identified as Resinwich disagreed.
"The issue isn't that football players got into a fight. It's that they waited an hour, organized a posse, and busted into an apartment to beat up [with one exception] the wrong people."