Penn State Fans, Joe Paterno, And Childish Ignorance


[Editor’s note: Pushed to the front page in the light of the news Joe Paterno is in serious condition. I still believe everything written here applies to the situation which so wracked the college football world and the world of State College, PA two months ago.]

The scandal at Penn State is now fully out of control.

Whether you’re a sports fan or perhaps a fan of simple human decency, there is only one possible reaction to the news of child abuse by a former Penn State defensive coordinator: outrage. Simple outrage, with regret over the lost opportunities to prevent the pain caused by Jerry Sandusky’s horrific actions.

But I am not here to write about what Jerry Sandusky did. That is for different outlets and better writers, like Spencer Hall and Drew Magary. I have nothing to add on this front.

Instead, it is the developments of Tuesday night that I would like to discuss. Beginning around 7:00 local time, a significant chunk of the student body of Penn State began to swarm around the house of revered coach Joe Paterno, and perhaps the oddest — and, in my opinion, the most misguided — demonstration of my short life began.


May no act of ours bring shame
To one heart that loves thy name,
May our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State.

The Penn State Alma Mater

To be clear, nobody involved in this investigation in any way, shape, or form approaches the vileness and depravity of Jerry Sandusky. He is the one who will be on trial for committing some 40 acts of child abuse, not Joe Paterno, not the graduate assistant who told Joe Paterno, and not any of the administrators whom Joe Paterno approached with the information.

Technically, Paterno did what he was supposed to do. But in a society where we all become satisfied with the bare minimum, we don’t thrive. Joe Paterno’s Penn State Nittany Lions certainly don’t thrive if the coach only gives the bare minimum in the film room or on the practice field, and they certainly don’t win multiple National Championships if the coach only asked for the bare minimum. So why start now?

The truth is, it just might be a bit much to ask the Penn State faithful to treat Joe Paterno with a rational state of mind.

Without being a member of the Penn State family, it’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to understand just how much he means to that school and that area of Pennsylvania. Wisconsin fans love Barry Alvarez, to be sure, and even in his transition from head football coach to athletic director he is revered by the Wisconsin student body. Athletics are a big part of the student experience in Madison, and as such, Alvarez is a part of the pride many students have in the University of Wisconsin.

The relationship between Joe Paterno and Penn State University goes so much farther than any one living, working athletic figure could have with the University of Wisconsin. It probably goes farther with any one relationship between human and school in the nation. When you go to Penn State, you cheer on Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions.

So what else could they do with their coach, a figure ranging somewhere between father and God to these ever-impressionable young minds, backed into a corner by these allegations? They had to do something! That “something” turned out to be a loud public rally in support of Paterno.

When presented this way — as a bunch of kids rallying around a father figure — it almost sounds innocent. Perhaps it was. But one of the hallmarks of childlike innocence is blissful ignorance, and that is precisely what these demonstrating students exhibited Tuesday night.

One of the first chants from the throng of supporters was a simple plea: “Go Home Media.” The students showed the kind of sentiment of a kid coming to grips with dealing with a new step-parent, or perhaps on a lighter level, learning that Santa Claus isn’t real (sorry). As if the fact that Paterno failed in his responsibility to prevent multiple horrible acts against children disappears if those mean people would just go away.

Things would only devolve from there. Paterno would go on to make a statement on his front lawn even more oblivious than the students supporting him. Blinded by love (or perhaps blinded by “<3") and fueled by the father's encouragement, the rallying students would continue for hours. Among their go-to chants? The first line of the final stanza from the Penn State Alma Mater, quoted above.May no act of ours bring shame.

Pure, utter obliviousness.

It is particularly disturbing because the line quoted here is precisely one which should be hammered home in this entire scandal. The students, alumni and faculty of Penn State should be well above the shameful acts of Sandusky. They should be well above well above the non-acts from Paterno and athletic director Tim Curley and finance-business executive Gary Schultz which allowed Sandusky’s vicious crimes to continue.

But not in the way the students here use the quote. Here, it is as if no act from Paterno can possibly bring him — and since Joe Paterno is Penn State in the eyes of so many, the university as well — any shame. And it is this unexpurgated tunnel vision that makes this demonstration on the part of the Penn State students so disgusting.

Unfortunately, I cannot completely speak as if things would be so different if the events of the week centered around Madison, Wisconsin as opposed to State College, Pennsylvania. I most certainly hope the student body I was proud to call myself a part of for the past four years would have the critical thinking skills to stay away from such an ignorant demonstration of single-mindedness.

But if this were Barry Alvarez, in a hypothetical world in which he coached the Badgers through his sunset years? Alvarez’s status cannot even approach the fervor surrounding Joe Paterno, and maybe that would be enough to allow clearer heads to prevail. Still, I can’t be so sure a misguided riot of our own wouldn’t run through State Street on a cold November night.

Regardless, the incredibly disturbing and rather pervasive culture of football-over-everything at the member schools of the National Collegiate Athletic Association does not justify this total lack of perspective shown by many of the Penn State students on Tuesday night.

Chances are, in five, ten, maybe fifteen years, a plurality of these kids will be parents to children of their own. Perhaps a few will be parents of a ten-year-old boy, just like the one a graduate student saw Jerry Sandusky sodomize in the Penn State locker room, the ones Joe Paterno did the bare minimum to protect. Maybe then they will look back on their incredibly careless and ignorant demonstration Tuesday night and wonder exactly what the hell they were yelling for.