Thursday, December 22, 2011

Penn State, State College and the post-Sandusky media narrative

Many are inaccurately conveying that little town with the big university in central Pennsylvania, perhaps because it doesn't fit the media narrative

Wright Thompson didn't quite get it. He didn't grasp what State College and Penn State are all about.

Which is fine, since he never never lived there or went to school there. Except that Thompson wrote a major feature story about Penn State in the wake of Sandusky, and thus he needed to get it right.

Thompson, an accomplished writer with a college football background, wrote the story titled "We were ... ," in the Nov. 26 edition of ESPN The Magazine. (

Among many observations Thompson made was the following:

"This paragraph will prompt hate mail, but it's true: State College is an ordinary college town. No more, no less."

Thompson then begins describing how State College is an ordinary college town: "The strip of bars and restaurants isn't particularly unique or specific to this place ...''

In other words, Thompson's tossing of State College into the bin of average-ness (and doing so in a back-handed, condescending manner with the "this will prompt hate-mail, but it's true" disclaimer), and his counter to anyone who says State College is anything but an ordinary college town, is based on his view of the uniqueness of the bars and restaurants. And maybe the trees, and perhaps the architecture.

Well, he may be right about that. State College might not have distinctly better aesthetics, or better bars and restaurants, than, say, Tuscaloosa. Or Athens. Or Bloomington. Or Lawrence. Or any other big-school true college towns. For the most part, they are all great. That's what college towns are - way-cool places. That's why we love them (and why we didn't go to college in, say, Cleveland. Or Columbus :-).

But, with regard to State College, it's a shallow observation and totally misses the point. It overlooks what does make State College unique, and special, even within that already unique and special subculture of the college town: An unmatched quartet of characteristics that, blended together, give State College/PennState its unique spirit and soul:

1. exceedingly small-sized town
2. massive, comprehensive state university
3. incredible remoteness
4. blissful self-containment

Some college towns might be as small. Or almost as remote. Or nearly as blissfully self-contained. Or home to as massive a research-driven state university.

But can anyone match all four? State College/Penn State is like a grand, successful sociological experiment. A giant Petri dish, inside a big bubble.

Small size/massive university: Most of the year, State College/Penn State consists of about 87,000 people - with a few more students (approx. 45,000) than townsfolk (approx. 42,000) - in one quaint, amazingly isolated, picturesque wee town. The vast majority of the populace, about 3/4ths, are directly connected to the beloved flagship state university, either as a student or employee.

Town and campus are symbiotic - State College/Penn State is Penn State/State College, and vice versa -  and it is designed such that virtually everyone lives within walking distance of everything - and actually does walk to everything. For real. Or ride a bicycle. Cars? Just a novelty for students.

(On the flip side, the everyone-is-right-here-within-a-half-mile-or-less-of-College Ave also occasionally fosters a dangerous side of State College/Penn State, due to the incredible ease with which 10,000-plus students, possibly drunk, can coverage on downtown in a matter of minutes if properly compelled.)

Remoteness: State College/Penn State is squarely in the middle of nowhere - near no cities or other universities, and nearly impossible to get into or out of.

From State College, it's 3 hours, 48 minutes to Philadelphia. Baltimore is 3:15. Buffalo is just over 4 hours, as is DC, and Cleveland is a little farther than that, and NYC is between 4 and 5 hours, depending on traffic.

Equidistant from everywhere, near nowhere.

Pittsburgh is closest, 2 hours and 40 minutes. Which means the nearest city and nearest big university - Pitt - both are nearly three hours away.

Blissful self-containment: It's as if State College/Penn State was scientifically plopped down in the most remote location possible to create a palpable "we're all in this thing together" camaraderie.

If you have lived there, then you know it. If you have experienced it, and been a part of it, you've felt it.

Is there another town where famous, iconic people live amongst everyone else like friends and equals, ready to share some sugar or flour, not secluded behind a gated community? You think Nick Saban's in the phone book, and accessible? Mike Krzyzewski? (Maybe Tom Izzo is, perhaps a few others.)

Plus, State College always is ranked very highly on lists of things such as highest quality of life, most livable and safest. And has been for decades. Most of the year, it's an 87,000-person neighborhood, trapped in time - in a very, very good time. Or it was, at least, pre-Sandusky.

Sprinkle in some mountains and sweeping fall foliage, and a lot of the allegedly "not unique to State College" college-town things like bars and restaurants and ...

No, State College/Penn State is not ordinary. Not better than many of its college town brethren - places like Chapel Hill and Charlottesville are classic - but not ordinary, that's for sure. It has its own truly unique combination of wonderful characteristics.

(This whole entire homage to the uniqueness of State College also demonstrates something else: Even the neatest little college towns can spawn the most horrible acts. Sandusky happened, because such things can happen just about anywhere. Nowhere is immune, no place can let its guard down. And as more and more similar allegations emerge nationwide, it's beginning to feel, tragically, as though it has happened everywhere.)

However, much of the reporting about State College/Penn State during the Sandusky saga seems to have been smudged by the media's predetermined plot lines (Paterno and Penn State front and center, then Sandusky, and The Second Mile somewhere well behind them). Otherwise, why not ask people about the place? Ask a lot of them, current and past, to get to its core.

It would be very difficult of course, because everyone is aching about all of this right now, everything is blurred by Sandusky. And everyone connected to State College/Penn State is naturally wary of the press after feeling the brunt of its overwhelming force, front-row witness to the media's clinical tearing asunder of a bedrock institution such as Penn State. In a matter of days, obliterated.

(Thompson labeled State College "a sort-of bland Lawrence." Well, what do you expect to observe of a town during its greatest depths of depression and shock? Sheesh.)

Eventually, though, people talk. State College/Penn State could have been be captured in explanations and anecdotes from those who know it best. Instead of from subjective observations about the bars and restaurants, made during the worst time in the school's history, when the place was nothing like normal.

Or, is this part of the problem: In the eyes of the media, are people from State College/Penn State no longer credible? Are they no longer legitimized, since Sandusky happened there, in their community, under their nose, so to speak? Does State College/Penn State now require someone who spent a week there - a really, really bad week at that - to tell those who spent their life there what the place they live in is really like?

State College/Penn State has been hijacked, and will never quite be the same. First it was hijacked by Sandusky, by those who may have enabled him and by those who perhaps did even worse by covering up allegations. Now, by the media.

Well, some of the media. Many have written interesting and/or extraordinary stories, most coming from those connected in some way with State College/Penn State. Here are some of those stories, and one amazing video monologue from Jon Ritchie.

Michael Weinreb:

P.J. Bednarski/Lou Prato:

Tom Verducci:

Dana O'Neil:

Joe Posnanski:

Jon Ritchie:

And here's one more commentary on Paterno, a fresh new one, about his role in the Sandusky scandal, specifically about his actions in March 2002 when Mike McQueary says he witnessed Sandusky sexual abusing a boy. Unlike the far too many shrill and irrational voices that have dominated the commentary on this matter, this one is reasoned and reasonable. And it is based on what we know at this point about Paterno and this matter, and not on some utopian fantasy whereby Paterno, in the role of Chuck Norris, dissatisfied with the inaction of University Park police, bypasses all authority and due process - and strings up Sandusky in his backyard.

Thomas L. Day:

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