Some thoughts from a Penn State grad in the wake of a horrific scandal.
By now, we know the details. The horrifying details. And, surely, there are more to come. We’ve seen the outrage, the reactions, and the general disbelief from every imaginable angle, be it journalist, talking head, or friend. Since the story broke on Saturday, a day that Penn State fans, with the team on its bye, were supposed to be free from wondering who should start at quarterback and whether this was the worst 8-1 team in history, most fans and alumni, myself included, have vacillated between unhinged anger and numb disbelief. As one of the most bizarre, disgusting, sad, and terrible scandals in all of sports unfolds, our Penn State pride hasn’t just been wounded or questioned – it’s been shattered into a million pieces. Whether you’re a freshman finding your way in East Halls or the diehard alum that talks themselves into ten wins every year, we’re all left to pick up the pieces. And we’re not sure how, or if it’s even worth it.
I grew up a Penn State fan. It wasn’t due to my parents being alumni – my dad went to Villanova, my mom West Chester – it was because of Joe Paterno, Happy Valley, the blue and white uniforms, what Penn State stood for. I remember my dad planning Saturday activities around the Penn State game. I remember O.J. McDuffie, my first ever favorite player in any sport. I remember being at the Michigan State game in Happy Valley in November of 1994, a 59-31 shellacking in the brutal cold and snow, watching in disbelief as students celebrated shirtless and with chests painted. I remember how good the hot chocolate was and how happy the 10-year old me was to be able to take the plastic collector’s mug home. I remember Paterno’s 324th win; it was a special day not because of the milestone or Zach Mills’ performance, but because it was the day I decided that Penn State was the place I would spend the next four years of my life.
If you went to Penn State, you know. If you don’t, you’ve been told. It’s different there. I’m sure this is similar with any college across America – there are parties, activities, classes, buildings, and bars that can’t be replicated anywhere else. But at Penn State, the sheer idea of what Penn State is, what it means in a grander sense, is bigger than any one student, or bar, or game of broomball. Penn State is different because it’s Penn State. It’s the middle-of-nowhere campus, the quaint college town, the gorgeous early fall and late spring weather coupled with the brutal winter, the massive student base that leaves you wide-eyed and head-spinning on freshman weekend and ends up making you feel like a cast member of Cheers by graduation.
And above all else, at the center of the Penn State universe of which everything else revolved was the football program. It was larger than life. It embodied whatever it was that made Penn State Penn State. It was tradition. It was consistency. It was pure. It didn’t matter if you graduated in 1974 or 2006, it was the place and thing you could keep coming back to, every fall, every Saturday, and, if only for a few hours, relive some of the greatest moments of your life. And while the players changed and Beaver Stadium grew and Paterno became less the coach and more the figurehead, it was still Penn State Football. Until Saturday. Until everything changed. Until that center of the universe, the ultimate source of blinding pride, changed to something altogether different, a black cloud that seems to threaten everything we love about the university.
I suppose in many ways, we were all naïve to put our faith in the moral consistency of a billion dollar athletic department. Shouldn’t we have learned from the recent Miami allegations, from the Cam Newton scandal, from USC, Ohio State, and everywhere in between? Shouldn’t we have learned from Tiger Woods, or Tim Donaghy, or Kobe Bryant, or any number of NFL stars that the pedestal that we place our athletes, our teams, and our sports on is a wobbly one? Did we look the other way time and time again, chalking them up as isolated incidents instead of serious cracks in the foundation? Yes, yes, and yes.
It’s not too hard to see where we go from here. Paterno has, at best, 4 games left. As I’m writing this, they’ve cancelled his press conference, the New York Times is reporting that his exit is being planned, and radio reports are saying he will not coach this weekend. It’s sad, but it’s necessary. There will be a new Athletic Director, a new President, and a new coach. Ironically, Penn State fans have been calling for Paterno’s exit/retirement/graceful fade away for a decade. But we never wanted it like this. However, if the university is going to recover and move on from this scandal it must prove that Penn State is Penn State not because of Paterno or the football program but because of the values that he tried to instill in his players, and in turn, the entire student and fan base, through the years. That he, and the program and school, failed in this incident doesn’t make his message or legacy any less important. If anything, it makes it more important. It should show everyone that moral responsibility is required by everyone and one slip up, no matter how much good you’ve done, can do harm.
And for Penn State fans, those swift decisions and changes are what we must turn our pride toward. The values and ideals of what makes Penn State Penn State must be upheld. Because when we say, “We Are Penn State,” we are talking about the collective, the larger than life meaning of Penn State, not any one man, no matter how deified he has become. We must recognize that Penn State is forever changed and make sure that we’re all the better for it.