On May 14, Penn State quarterback Rashard Casey, 22, and high school teammate Desmond Miller, 22, were charged with aggravated assault, a felony, after they allegedly beat up an off-duty policeman in Casey's hometown of Hoboken, N.J. Police say the two, both of whom are black, confronted Patrick Fitzsimmons, who is white, because he was leaving a club with a black woman. During the ensuing fight Fitzsimmons, 34, a patrolman on the Hoboken force, was knocked unconscious. Police say his blood was found on Casey's shirt and boots.
Despite the felony charge against Casey (above), Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno answered "yes" last week when asked if Casey would be starting for Penn State in the Aug. 27 Kickoff Classic against USC. Has the 73-year-old Paterno, just seven victories from passing Bear Bryant as Division I-A's winningest coach, chucked his famous morals to keep his only experienced signal-caller on the field? "I wouldn't want to be Joe Paterno on this one," says Allen Sack, author of College Athletes for Hire. "I believe athletes deserve due process, but at what point does a coach say there's enough suspicion to pull the plug?"
At some schools the decision wouldn't be the coach's to make. Florida State and Georgia are among more than a dozen colleges that have adopted rules forbidding an athlete charged with a felony from playing. When Florida State's Peter Warrick was charged with felony theft last year, the school regulation forced him to miss games against Miami and Wake Forest. (The charge was later reduced to petty theft.) The ACC has discussed instituting a conferencewide rule like Florida State's.
Paterno pointed to Casey's reputation as a model citizen in defending his decision and said he hasn't gone soft in his old age: "I don't think I've become more sympathetic or less sympathetic. I try to treat each case on the basis of its particular merits." The prosecutor's office says the charge against Casey likely will be reduced to the equivalent of a misdemeanor, but even so Paterno will face pressure to punish Casey. After all, two years ago he suspended line-backer Mac Morrison one game for using a fake I.D. at a State College bar.