Monday, November 7, 2011

Penn State fandom in the post-Sandusky sex scandal era: It's complicated (posted 11.7.11)

Penn State fandom in the post-Sandusky sex scandal era: It's complicated
For PSU fans, especially the over-40 set, this could shake their long-held belief in Penn State football for a very long time

The Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal and related carnage - Penn State AD Tim Curley (leave) and VP of business and finance Gary Schultz (retired), both charged of perjury, stepped down in the last 24 hours - is a bellwether event in the history of Penn State football.

Perhaps the bellwether event. Sandusky was an icon, albeit from another era. He was directly connected to the Penn State icon, Joe Paterno, for decades. Sexually abusing children is as heinous as it gets. Major national media outlets are leading broadcasts with the scandal. It is huge, it is very bad and it is extraordinarily sad.

(Make no mistake, the alleged victims are the ones for whom this is the most terrible. However, this blog is about Penn State football.)

PSU football has a massive support base. On volume alone, the size, passion and commitment of the fan base is among the Top 10 in all of college football. In the same breath with Texas, Ohio State, Alabama, Michigan, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Nebraska. The cream of the crop.

Yet it also has had a unique culture among the superpower football programs. At the heart of that fan base has been more than just unbridled support for the alma mater's football team and a desire to tailgate on Saturdays.

It has been about supporting success on the field, and supporting class and dignity and scholarship off of it. It has been about family and friends and school, about generations and traditions, and a whole lot of things that make us feel good about our lives.

At the core of all of that is the 84-year-old Paterno, and everything he has represented for an unheard-of 46 years as head coach: Success with Honor.

PSU proudly wore the badge of being one of only two BCS schools (Stanford) never to have incurred a significant NCAA infraction. Players graduated at a higher rate than almost all other schools. (Look it up, it's true, and has been for a very long time.) More Academic All-Americans than other schools (look that up, too). Lots of former players in the NFL, lots of former players very successful in all walks of life. Incredible stories of courage (Adam Taliaferro) and humanity (John Cappelletti).

Paterno has made enormous, generous donations to the school. Yet his salary is far less than market value. A PSU library is named after him. His assistant coaches stay on for years, decades. He takes all the heat for any failings on the field. He's the winningest coach of all-time, yet amazingly he got there by doing it the right way in an era when program after program has been caught cheating or scandalized in some form or another, and head coaches come and go like a carousel.

PSU never took shortcuts. It rarely recruited junior college players. It held relatively high standards of admission, it cut loose players who weren't adhering to their responsibilities, and others have found themselves in JoePa's proverbial doghouse for months for seemingly small transgressions. Almost all of them, years later, end up saying maybe they didn't like Paterno when they were playing, but he ended up being one of the best things that ever happened to them.

It's all part of the tapestry of Penn State football. All part of what made being a Penn State fan feel extra special.

There have been embarrassing hiccups, for sure, most notably in player comportment off the field - alcohol abuse, brawls, marijuana usage. And in 2003-04 the team really struggled on the field.

By and large, however, it has been as good as any fan could have asked for (frustrations with the conservative offense aside.) All of JoePa's coaching records have been great, but all they really did was reinforce something we already knew: We were part of one of the best things going.

This - the Sandusky sex scandal - shakes all of that to its core like a 7.9 on the Richter scale

The New York Times had Jayson Blair. Wall Street had Bernie Madoff. The Soviet Union had Chernobyl. Once upon a time, Pennsylvania had Three Mile Island.

And now Penn State football has Jerry Sandusky. And possibly others who may have irresponsibly abetted him.

All fans - all people - of course are horrifyingly appalled by Sandusky's alleged acts. But once the cleanup takes place - as long as those who broke the law or acted wrongly are held to accountability - younger PSU fans likely will be quicker to move on.

Those in their 30s and younger are products of the fast-paced Internet/social media age, so they don't fasten onto things for long, and they never really knew Sandusky. Some students at PSU may never have heard of Sandusky until Friday evening when the news broke. He's a guy who retired a long time ago, when they were in elementary school. Things happen quickly in the modern world. The next big scandal is on the clock, ready to strike.

Much of the outside world - i.e non-Penn State football fans - will feel the same way. They'll be mortified by the accusations, they'll want hear about accountability, and then, eventually, they will move on. Baylor men's basketball recovered from the murder of one player by another, and a cover-up by the head coach.

PSU football is not Baylor basketball, though. Older PSU football fans - perhaps those who's initiation and love of the Nittany Lions developed pre-1990s, back when Paterno, with Sandusky at his side, were forging a national powerhouse  - many of them won't soon feel the same about things. If ever.

Mainly, it's the alleged abhorrent betrayal of trust by Sandusky. He was a revered coach. He worked with Nittany Lion legends. He was behind many great defenses. He established a fabulous children's charity that reached every corner of the state.

Jerry Sandusky was someone you could believe in. Legions of older fans did.

Then, there's Paterno. Not everyone inside PSU fandom loves Paterno. Some think he's sanctimonious, some think his ego is too big and he should have retired years ago, some simply don't like the way he manages the team on game days. But most have held to the tenet, for decades, that JoePa is Penn State football, and they love Penn State football.

Right now, that subset of PSU fandom is embarking on a most uncomfortable holding pattern. Will more information come forth about Paterno's role in all of this? Should he have done more? Did he do more? Yes, the grand jury has lauded him for acting appropriately. He followed protocol. He did what he was supposed to do. But of course there is more to the story. What will that be?

No one ever would have doubted how Joe Paterno would have handled any situation. But if Jerry Sandusky can allegedly sexually abuse children, then anyone can have at least a minor chink in their armor. Even JoePa. So the old guard waits nervously.

The young guard of PSU fans is appalled and aghast, too. But in relatively short time they will embrace the next generation of Penn State football.

For the old guard, it's just not as simple. Part of their core has been ripped from them. They're scared it might get worse. Or that they might never recover from it.

Let's make a couple of things clear. First, this isn't comparable in any way to anything relating to NCAA infractions, cheating, paying players, skirting the rules, etc. This is about a man who allegedly violated the decency and human rights of children, and possibly about others who may have irresponsibly abetted him.

Second, let's be clear when evaluating the role of Paterno in this mess: It is administrators who are supposed to deal with things like this. As a former school administrator, the job title might as well be "constantly deals with all the crap, so that the teachers and coaches can go about the business of doing their jobs properly without having to worry about all the crap.''

In schools, administrators do many things, and right at the top of the list, for lack of a better term, is "crap handlers." Tim Curley didn't just hire/fire/evaluate/mentor coaches, make suggestions for program and facility development and rake in the accolades for the incredible success of the athletic empire he oversaw. He dealt with all the crap. And at a school and athletic program as massive as Penn State's - with so many coaches, so many athletes (and parents of athletes), so many facilities, so many boosters, so many events, so many alumni, so much money flowing through - there most assuredly was a lot of crap.

What sort of crap? Things such as a former coach at the school, who a few years later still had access to campus facilities because of his charitable organization, sexually abusing a child in an athletic facility, according to a witness. That's as vile a pile of crap as it gets, and it falls squarely on Curley, and on campus police, to deal with it. And according to the grand jury, Curley and Schultz, who oversaw campus police, failed to properly do so.

That said, could Paterno have done more? The columnists and writers who already didn't like him or wanted him to retire long ago will weigh in harshly against Paterno or have done so already, as will those who haven't fully looked at the grand jury report, as will those who simply choose to ignore what the grand jury said in order to say whatever it is they want to say, as will those who don't understand school structure, the role of administrators, the importance of following protocol and the delineation between coaches/faculty and administrators.

Or those who simply look for the easy, name-brand target and take aim. Simply put, saying Paterno should be blamed and fired, and perhaps tarred and feathered, generates the most page views and most headlines. So it will be out there, a lot.

This situation is a lot more nuanced than that. There is much more to this story that we don't know, of course - much we don't know about what Paterno knew, or what he might have done, or what he didn't do. The gut feeling here is The Second Mile, Sandusky's children's charity, will play a much bigger role in news stories about this saga moving forward. Why? Because The Second Mile is where Sandusky, over a period of many years, gained access to all of the children he allegedly sexually assaulted, eight children in all, two of them over a period of several years. That is the genesis of this story. (The Second Mile releases a statement:

Yet we are bound to learn more about Paterno's place in all of this, but how much more? And how will it make us feel about Paterno?

For tens of thousands of PSU football supporters, somewhere in that answer is our core. Penn State football always was something worth believing in, something worth supporting.

It was a whole heck of a lot more than just rooting for the guys in the blue jerseys to beat the guys in the other jerseys on Saturday afternoons.

It's going to be awkward and uncomfortable for the rest of this season, as we process it all.

In a few months, how will we feel? What about a few years?

Being a Penn State fan suddenly is extremely complicated.

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