I (Ben) didn’t go to Penn State University, but growing up in State College, Pennsylvania, is basically the same thing. Over half of my graduating high school class went to Penn State. Our high school mascot couldn’t escape Penn State’s shadow either: We were the State High Little Lions. There’s really little else in State College — which is so close to the exact middle of the state that I tell people it’s between the Y and the L on any map of Pennsylvania — besides the university, which is why the scandal that has now brought down legendary coach Joe Paterno and college president Graham Spanier feels like an implication of all of us who have called State College home.
I grew up rooting for Penn State and going to home football games with my best friend Pat. I believed — as all of us Nittany Lions fans believed — that our football program was different. Its motto was “Success With Honor.” We prided ourselves on being the team with the standard blue and white uniforms — no names on the back, no stickers on the helmets, no flash or flair. Just honest, hard-nosed football players.
I was nine years old when Penn State won its second national championship, a 14-10 victory over Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl. (We got a VCR that Christmas, and this was the first thing we ever taped on it. Somewhere my parents still have the tape.) That win was largely due to defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s masterful game plan, which goaded Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde into throwing five interceptions.
The sporting world at large viewed the game in stark, good vs. evil terms. Those were the swaggering Miami teams of Jimmie Johnson and Michael Irvin. The only Nittany Lion from that team who went on to make any kind of a splash in the NFL was linebacker Shane Conlan, and it wasn’t much of a splash. Miami was all about individual success; Penn State was about team. For Nittany Lion fans, it wasn’t just that we won that game (and so many others over the years); it’s that we won the right way.
The details of the scandal that has ended Paterno’s career, and given lie to the myth that Penn State football was beyond reproach, are sordid and well familiar to anyone who has been following the news recently. Sandusky has been arrested for allegations of sexual abuse of at least eight young boys spanning a fifteen year period. Sandusky ran a charity called The Second Mile for at-risk youth. (“It was within The Second Mile program that Sandusky found his victims,” states the grand jury transcript.) He and his wife adopted six children. They took in other foster children.
When a 2002 incident involving Sandusky assaulting a boy in a campus shower was brought to Paterno’s attention, he relayed it to the school’s athletic director, Tim Curley, the following day. Legally, he fulfilled his duties sufficiently enough to have avoided indictment by a grand jury. Morally, he fell far short. He wasn’t the only one, but the school’s board of trustees did the right thing by removing him and Spanier (whose initial statement that Curley had his “unconditional support” rung tone deaf and certainly contributed to his undoing). Usually the firing of the college president would be the bigger news story, but in State College, nobody deferred to JoePa. Until now.
I talked to my parents tonight, and they said it’s strange to have the media glare shine so brightly on the place known as “Happy Valley.” Some commentators have called this “the worst scandal in college sports history.” Whatever it is, it feels unexpectedly personal. Everyone in State College knows everyone else. It’s a small town. To live in State College is to be a Penn State football fan. But being a Penn State football fan right now carries with it a feeling of queasiness and disgust.
It’s rare that a scandal of this size can be summarized in one sentence, but I’ve heard and read several commentators boil it down rather succinctly: Who was looking out for that young boy?
Michael Weinreb, another State High grad, writes about the scandal here for Grantland.