Ashley Esparza still believes in Penn State
She has Penn State license plate frames on her car. A blue-and-white Nittany Lion flag flies at her San Pedro, Calif., home, where she was born and raised. She has a tattoo of former football coach Joe Paterno's glasses on her back.
"I got a great education and great experience as an athlete," said 26-year-old Ashley Esparza, a former All-American pitcher for the Nittany Lions (2005 to 2008). "And now I tell people I went to Penn State and they look at me like I'm a molester myself."
The Penn State football program will suffer because of the heinous crimes committed against young boys by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and the alleged cover-up by the school administration. But the fallout spreads far beyond the football team. Football revenue funds nonrevenue sports, such as softball, providing opportunities for athletes such as Esparza, who had never even heard of Paterno when she left California for State College as an 18-year-old with a wicked changeup.
"It was something that was so great in my life," said Esparza, who earned a degree in criminal justice. "And now people don't understand when they weren't even there. They look at me weird, and I say, 'No, I'm normal.'"
She swears she didn't drink the PSU Kool-Aid, but she loves her school. She knows the stigma is real and that it's going to take a long time for people to heal and move on. Her empathy for Sandusky's victims crushes her soul; so does her grief for what has happened to the school she loves.
She read the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh and is still conflicted.
"I honestly feel there are a ton of holes in it," Esparza said. "And it made us out to look like monsters. And the fact that [suspended athletic director] Tim Curley and [former vice president] Gary Schultz haven't even been prosecuted yet, I don't know how reasonable it is punish the university when the criminal cases weren't finished. There are a lot of things in that report I have questions about."
Esparza denies the claims about the culture at her school, which is being described as out-of-control football-centric.
"It wasn't like that at all," she said. "The football players had way more accountability than any other sport at Penn State. We got way more clothing, T-shirts, shoes. They were required to have study hall year-round. They had people checking that they went to class.
"And there was more to just being an athlete there -- for all sports. We were students first."
Esparza and her softball team had plenty of interaction with the football team. During the winter months, they worked out together on the indoor practice field, shortstops alongside linebackers. Esparza eventually learned who Paterno was and came to embrace what she says she still believes he stood for, report or no report.
"He was the type of leader who put everyone else first," she said. "I know the allegations are not showing him as that type of person, but he donated money all the time. He showed up at pep rallies. We would see him walking all the time. He talked to us all the time. He was there -- not just there but involved, not just a face that represents. And academics always came first with him."
The softball team volunteered annually at the Christmas party held at the Second Mile, the charity Sandusky created and used to find his young victims. Thinking about that, and remembering the times she saw him on campus, is a painful image for Esparza.
"Horrific," she said.
Esparza doesn't believe Paterno lied when he said he didn't know about the 1998 investigation into Sandusky's activities. "JoePa was old. He was a grandfather," she said. The thought of him turning a blind eye to sexual abuse of children is something she just doesn't believe. But she has many questions.
"Sadly, we'll never get to know the truth and what happened," she said. "But in saying he wished he had done more, he admitted he was wrong and he made a mistake, and that says a lot about him."
When the statue of Paterno on campus was taken down, Esparza said she thought, "They might as well tear the stadium down, too. He built that."
When the NCAA's sanctions of the football program came down Monday morning, she didn't want to read them -- expecting the worst. Her phone started ringing with text after text after text, and finally she had to look for herself.
"Devastating," she said.
She worries about her sport, the game that brought her to the campus, that gave her a top education and so much joy at the same time. She and her former teammates remain close. After checking, she said all current softball recruits are still committed. But she knows the challenges the coaches will face on the recruiting trail. Like her arm, though, her resolve to keep her sport solvent is steely and strong.
"As alumni, we'll give back, not knowing what's going to happen," Esparza said. "It might affect [softball] as far as money. It's all a huge concern."
Esparza plans to attend the alumni softball game in October, where she will huddle with her fellow alumni and craft a plan to make sure softball and other sports unite and stay strong. She said the Penn State community will pull together in the face of what is being called the worst tragedy in collegiate sports history.
She cries and grieves for the Sandusky victims, but she believes in her school. She loves her school. It gave her too much as an athlete and a young woman.