No, this isn’t about ESPN’s sports program that airs every Saturday morning in the fall. This is about the days in the fall that I’ve come to love so very much, but that today seem especially grotesque given the tragedy that occurred and occurs, still, at Pennsylvania State University.
The latest Penn State sexual assault rumors started to make their way to the airwaves and internet screens of the country about a week ago that a former assistant coach at PSU had been implicated in a very graphic grand jury report— a grand jury report that comes after years of suspect behavior on behalf of football players and coaches. These latest allegations claim that over a 15 year period, Jerry Sandusky had assaulted eight boys during activities at Penn State. The most alarming was that in 2002, a then 28 year-old graduate assistant named Mike McQueary walked in on Sandusky sodomizing a boy in the shower. McQueary did not call the police, did not stop the action, did immediately report the incident… Instead he called his father for advice. Later he told head coach Joe Paterno and, allegedly, Paterno told him to let the athletic director know. All the while, a ten year-old boy was dealing with the repercussions of an ill-fated visit to College Park, PA.
Wednesday night when PSU College President Graham Spanier and coach Joe Paterno were fired for their ‘mishandling’ of the abuse allegations, students took to the streets to protest, to scream their dissatisfaction at the firing of their coach– not the actual leader of their university, but the metaphorical leader of their school.
As I was watching the coverage of this disgraceful embarrassment on ESPN, commentator after commentator kept talking about how hard this was for the Penn State community. Matt Millen was especially distraught that his former coach had been fired. It was just so unbelievable to him and he knew that these next few days would be hard to get through for everyone at Penn State. I shouted at my television over the incredulity of these ‘experts’ never mentioning the victims, the boys assaulted by Sandusky, the boys who were allowed to be assaulted after the first allegations in 1998 were made. I waited for Kirk Herbstreit to offer his perspective. I’ve always felt a connection with Herbstreit for several reasons, but tonight it was because he seemed to be the only one on ESPN to ‘get it.’ “This is not about football,” he implored us all to remember. He would only briefly speak to the imagined devastation ignorant fans were experiencing. He focused on the issue at hand– that the men with the power to protect the victimized boys appeared to do nothing so as to protect the institution that is/was Penn State football.
I used to love Penn State football. That ‘used to’ is not hyperbole. I cannot ever imagine rooting for PSU again. I first became enamoured with PSU football when I read the book Something for Joey, the story of Penn State’s only Heisman Trophy winner, John Cappelletti and his younger brother Joey. The story of John’s athletic prowess while leukemia racked the body of his younger brother made me want to go to Penn State. Surely there was something special about that place to produce such people. And being a teenager, I probably was hoping I might meet another handsome quarterback like Todd Blackledge. Yes, my admiration of PSU wasn’t always based on the best criteria. I was excited when Penn State joined the Big 10. I felt like I had two teams to root for–my hometown Ohio State Buckeyes and those boys in blue. But no longer. If the allegations and cover-up weren’t enough, the way the Penn State community has reacted is enough to turn anyone away. Much like the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal has driven people from their church and their faith, so too, will this institutional deceit amidst horrific abuse, drive people from Happy Valley.
My turn away from the Nittany Lions was confirmed this morning when reporters in the Beaver Stadium parking lot remarked that you could smell the barbeques going, that the tailgating was underway. Tailgating. Because a child sexual abuse scandal makes me want to cook out and play cornhole. Eventually the Lions took the field to the cheering masses. Hooking elbows, rows of three walked onto to the field while the adoring fans clapped and shouted. As the ESPN cameras panned around the stadium, I noticed that not all of the fans were cheering. Many stood in silence. Maybe I had been wrong. And then the cameras went back to the players walking in, and #81, Jack Crawford, raised his left arm encouraging the cheers and confirmed I had not been wrong.
The Nebraska and Penn State players met at midfield to kneel in prayer and the cheers continued. Eventually there was a bit of quiet that emerged as a Nebraska assistant coach led the players in quiet reflection. Eventually, somehow, there was silence in that stadium and it felt as if the healing might be underway…. And then out of no where, came thunderous clapping. The cheerleaders with their bows and pom-poms ‘cheered’ to the clapping. Those at midfield were still in prayer. What would it take for the victims and the situation to receive the grave attention it deserved? It was as if the silence was too much for the Penn State community, as if the silence forced them all to reevaluate themselves and they wanted no part of that. To reevaluate what they hold dear and valuable may reveal the ugly inner workings of a community, state, and country that is in need of serious moral cleansing. The silence may ‘remind’ them that JoePa is not a victim in this situation, that the football players are not the victims in this situation, that college football fans are not victims in this situation, that Pennsylvania State University, in toto, is not a victim. Maybe the reason the silence could not survive in that stadium is because too many fans were still rationalizing the behavior of those involved in the cover-up. Let me borrow from John Scalzi in his post entitled “Omelas State University” and say that those still rationalizing the behavior of Paterno et al, are “fucking cowards.” Silence could not survive today because the monsters appear when it’s too quiet. And we all know that there are throngs of monsters in Pennsylvania right now.
Penn State lost today to Nebraska, 14 to 17. Oh they lost alright. We all have lost.
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