The Penn State controversy has been attracting about the same level of interest as the JonBenet Ramsey situation back in 2000. This is based on a national USA Today/Gallup poll conducted Nov. 15. A combined total of 58% of those we interviewed said they are following the news about “child sex abuse case involving the football program at Pennsylvania State University” very or somewhat closely.
This is just slightly below average for all 206 news stories we have asked about over the last two decades.
The JonBenet Ramsey case received exactly the same level of attention when we asked about it back in March 2000. The highest "attention paid" score in Gallup’s history was 97% for the Sept. 11, 2011 terrorist attacks, followed by a 96% for Hurricane Katrina, and 95% for the Iraq war in March 2003. The lowest in our history was a 17% score for those following the CBS show Survivor in August 2000.
Our USA Today/Gallup poll took a look at several issues related directly to what’s happened at Penn State since the controversy surfaced.
- Americans who are following the story somewhat or very closely agree with the Board of Trustees' firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno, by 66% to 25%.
- By 59% to 24% these attentive people say that the Penn State football program had become too powerful. When we developed this question, we considered giving respondents a list of colleges and asking if at each of them the football program had become too powerful: LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska, Florida, and so forth. We didn’t have the space to ask this sequence, but I imagine for the big name schools, college fans would have said “yes.” We’ll hopefully get to that question in the future.
- There doesn’t appear to be much agreement with the idea that the Penn State football program should be shut down, or that games should be canceled. Eight in 10 of those following the story say “no” to the suggestion that Penn State cancel and forfeit the rest of their football games this season -- which at this point would be Big Ten games against Ohio State and against Wisconsin. We asked this question after the emotional game last Saturday between Penn State and Nebraska had already been played, so to some extent respondents may have felt that Penn State going ahead with its schedule was a fait accompli.
- The question arises about the effect of this situation on the larger image of Penn State University overall. About a third of those following the story closely say they now have a more negative image of Penn State, while 63% say that they do not. This is an intriguing response, and suggests that many fans are thinking of the entire controversy as one that involves just selected individuals at the school -- rather than an entire culture of the big institution.