What happens when an institution—one that has shaped your life and identity—so horribly and publicly lets you down?
We received this submission from a Penn State associate professor who, due to tenure considerations, asked that we not use his name.
I’ll leave it to the psychologists and sociologists to explain the human need to belong. All I understand is that it’s universal—from hedge fund managers sharing the same Connecticut zip code to Juggalos gathering in their painted, fucked-up glory, we all want to be a part of something. Shared experience is generally inseparable from human happiness.
I’m sure this concept has a lot to do with the popularity of college football.
My college is Penn State. I go the football games, reveling in the shared joy of that experience. But my connection to this university, and the extent to which my identity is tied up with it, goes much further than being a season ticket holder at Beaver Stadium. Twenty years ago, I graduated from Penn State; eight years ago, I came back to Penn State to teach. And then, a couple days ago, Penn State was hit with a nuclear bomb.
I hope you’ll excuse the metaphor.
Because you’ve no doubt heard it already, and because I don’t have the stomach to revisit the details, I’ll spare you a rehashing here. Suffice it to say that this, as more than one respected writer has called it in recent days, might be the worst story to hit college sports since, well, ever. It’s horrible on every level, and I know I speak for a lot of Penn Staters when I say we simply feel lost.
Before I go any farther: I’m not a victim here. I’m well aware of that. The victims, if the terrible allegations are true, are kids who fell prey to a pedophile, and to the inaction of administrators who knew a monster was in their midst. As the father of young children, I know the feelings of fury and disgust these allegations push into your gut.
But there’s a ripple effect here, as there always is with these situations. The victims’ families suffer unimaginably, as do the families of the accused. And then there’s us, hundreds of thousands of us in this case, who chose a university as the place we’d get our degree and spend the proverbial best years of our lives, and then continue to support (financially and otherwise) the rest of our lives. And not just support; “represent” is probably a better word, and one that goes both ways. Like alumni of any big college, we wear our dedication on our heads and chests. We actively, proudly represent Penn State.
Or we used to.
Because, as stated, “represent” goes both ways. We are represented, too, by the university, in everything that word implies. Mostly, at a big school like Penn State, that means athletics. Football in particular. We are, most of us, proud of our school because our school—specifically the talented young men who wear our colors on the field—gives us something to be proud of. Something to be a part of. They give us an identity. They provide a focal point around which to rally. They let us belong.
So who, or what, do I belong to now?
Penn State still has one of the best public engineering schools in the nation, and one of the most important agricultural programs in the country. We make the best ice cream you’ve ever tasted. Our researchers have contributed to Nobel-winning research on climate change. Our student body hosts an annual cancer fundraiser that stands as the largest student-run philanthropy on the planet.
And sports? Our football coach has donated millions back to the university and helped raise untold millions more, doubling the size of the library and helping fund scholarships that have enabled countless kids to attend Penn State. And as far as the NCAA is concerned, our athletic department has still never been caught “cheating,” something the hopeful among us (there are fewer today, certainly) would like to believe is because we don’t cheat. Our athletes graduate at a higher rate than at almost any other major public university. In many undeniable ways, this place has and will continue to contribute a lot of good to the world.
Somehow I doubt anyone will remember that anytime soon.
I’m not looking for sympathy, although it’s been nice, among the poor-taste jokes and mostly justifiable outrage, to hear friends and acquaintances offer a “sorry, man” over the past few days. I’m not even looking for understanding, exactly. I’m asking the question, because I really don’t know the answer. For roughly half my life, a huge part of my identity has been tied to an institution and what it claims to represent. What do I do now that Penn State, in the public eye, represents administrators covering for a pedophile?
I realize that this might sound absurd. I’ve tried explaining it to friends with no connection to the university, and they don’t get it. Reading this, you might not get it either. But I’ve talked to other alums, particularly those who live in or near State College, and many of us feel the same. We feel sad, and angry, and almost physically disoriented.
If you live here, it’s hard for your life not to revolve around the university; it’s a small, isolated college town. It’s impossible to live here and not to be affected by whatever’s going on at Penn State. Most of the time, that’s a good thing. Now, we can’t imagine anything worse.
It could have happened in Tuscaloosa, or Norman, or South Bend. But it didn’t. It happened here.
The basketball team opened its season Saturday with an exhibition, and I took my kids. Other times it’s field hockey or volleyball. And six or seven Saturdays every fall, of course, it’s football. When you have young kids in a town like this, it’s what you do. You go to the games and root for the Nittany Lions. The winning and losing aren’t all that serious, at least not when you’re my kids’ ages. Often, the games are just background, another safe place to run around and eat junk food and maybe occasionally ask dad who’s winning the game.
My kids didn’t know any different this weekend. I’m glad for that. They’re all that matter. I’m a father and a husband before I’m an alumnus. I’m a man before I’m a fan of a football team. What happened here didn’t happen to me or my family, not really. In that sense, maybe it should be enough for me to be sad and angry about what allegedly happened to someone else’s kids. And I am. Believe me.
But I can’t separate it from my own experience. I don’t think anyone could. I leave it to the psychologists and sociologists to tell me why.
This Saturday, Penn State hosts Nebraska in its last regular season home football game. The Nittany Lions are ranked No. 12 and control their destiny for a place in the first-ever Big Ten title game. Under any other circumstance, five days out, I’d already be buzzing about the game. I live for my family, but after that, I live for days like this.
I’ll be at the game Saturday. I’m sure I’ll cheer, because none of what’s alleged to have happened here has anything to do with the kids on this team. Our venerable head coach is going to be up in the press box, nursing his bum hip, and I think I’m glad about that. Certainly I’ll be glad not to be home watching on TV, where the coverage won’t be able to ignore the cloud looming over the stadium, and the campus, and this town.
I’m not sure how I’ll react when the cheer starts. The origin of the “We Are…” chant is hazy, claimed by other schools as well as Penn State. None of those schools can pull it off like we do, though, not with nearly 110,000 chanting it before kickoff of a big game. It starts on the east side of the stadium: “We are…” And the west side answers: “Penn State!”
Well, we still are. If only we had the slightest idea what that means.
The GMP on Penn State:
Paterno and Pedestals, Julie Gillis
When the Game Becomes Religion, Gary Percesepe
Male Lust Arrives in Happy Valley, Tom Matlack
Destroying a Young Boy’s Soul, Ken Solin
Power Is at the Core of Sexual Harassment, Mervyn Kaufman
Men, Monsters, and the Media, Nicole Johnson
Loyalty and Responsibility at Penn State, Andrew Smiler
Jerry Sandusky and Penn State: A Familiar Story, Sophia Sadinsky
I Failed, Rick Morris
Sandusky-ed, Tim Green