20 July 2012

Jerry's Kids

Although Jerry Sandusky has been found guilty and is awaiting sentencing for his crimes, the media continues a daily barrage of new articles analyzing the case, its outcome and the potential consequences for Penn State University. As a graduate of Dear Old State, I watched the entire saga with a mixture of revulsion and disbelief combined with a dash of embarrassment that I was an alum of the now tainted institution. The entire case played out like a Greek tragedy with the fall of Joe Paterno, the evidence of a systemic cover-up and the terrible crimes inflicted on children who were not protected in order to preserve the Lilly white image of the football program and the university as a whole.

How could this happen ?

Looking in from the outside, "Happy Valley" acquired an image of being a place of, well, happiness- home to  one of the best universities in the country, an idyllic rural setting and a passionate student body who would pack Beaver Stadium on crisp Autumn afternoons to cheer on a team that seemed to be above the messy recruiting scandals endured by other schools and that actually sent its players out into the world with degrees.  As a student I certainly enjoyed my time at Penn State and attended my share of football games both as a student and after I graduated, tailgating before the game, hanging out in the bars on College Avenue after the game and generally enjoying the atmosphere.

Unless you visited Penn State in the past it is hard to fathom how truly revered Joe Paterno was. His image permeated the University and State College, his name was on part of the library and he licensed his endorsement and image for an assortment of goods and services. The student body loved him, he became their surrogate father or grandfather, the seemingly kind man who preached the virtues of winning with honor and doing the right thing. I remember as a freshman having a more jaded view of the hero worship going on around me. I was 22 years old at the time and had just spent 4 years in the Army- in many ways, I felt 20 years older than my fellow freshmen who were embarking on their first journey from home. My girlfriend at the time, 18 years old and fresh out of high school, was typical in the almost religious fervor that gripped her in going to the games, painting blue paws on her face and attending pep rallies. I preferred drinking beer with my veteran buddies and trading cynical comments on the "kids" as we called our fellow students.

Every cult of personality in human history has relied on symbols, bringing supporters together through a mixture of communal interests and beliefs- we all want to feel like we belong to something bigger and the  Penn State football program seemed to be a church with its arms wide open. The chants of "We Are" from the student side followed by "Penn State" from the alums could raise the hair on your neck when screamed by over 100,000 people. With characteristic Happy Valley happiness it was followed by "Thank You" and "You're Welcome." Meanwhile, amid this idyllic landscape a monster lurked, committing horrific crimes against children while the Administration looked the other way. 

When Joe Paterno was fired by the Board of Trustees the result was predictable- riots by a new generation of young Penn State students fed the same constant diet of football propaganda as their student body predecessors. It was inconceivable that the focus of their hero worship had been stripped away from them, shattering their rose colored glasses and ripping off the veil of happiness from the valley forever. Penn State will never be the same again and that is probably a good thing. 

What to do now ? Simple. Fire anyone from the University staff that failed to take action, suspend the entire football program for five years and return the school to its roots- academics and preparing young adults to become productive members of society. Penn State was doing that for generations before there even was a football team and the school can certainly do it again. 

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