Unhappy Valley: A Somber, Strange Day at Penn State

At Penn State University's football game since its head coach and president were fired for failing to stop a child predator, the usual drama felt "beside the point."

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At Penn State University's football game since its head coach and president were fired for failing to stop a child predator, the usual drama felt "beside the point."

That was the tone, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. Fans turned out, dressed in blue and white. Many carried signs or wore costumes in homage to longtime coach Joe Paterno. They tailgated and cheered for their team. But the real concern lay elsewhere.

The afternoon unfolded in the shadow of the university's crisis. A former longtime assistant to Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, is charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse of young boys, and two university officials have been charged with perjury for lying to a grand jury about their knowledge of his actions. A few days of contemplation about all that Paterno and university president Graham Spanier knew about the alleged assaults but did not tell police sealed their fates. They were fired this week, and another Paterno assistant, who told a grand jury he witnessed a rape in progress but did not stop it, is suspended indefinitely, and was not at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, in part for his own safety.

From the Inquirer:

Reminders of the scandal were everywhere. In a parking lot, a Penn State flag flew at half staff. A plane flying overhead pulled a "Pray for the Kids, Not the Cowards and Liars" banner.

The university received an anonymous bomb threat for Beaver Stadium Friday night, authorities said, but security personnel and bomb-sniffing dogs who combed the stadium Friday and Saturday morning found nothing.

The FBI and the police are still investigating, officials said.

The New York Times noted a shift in tone among fans at the game, in part attempted to correct the image created Wednesday, when students rioted in anger after learning that Paterno would be fired. The course correction started on the eve of the game, with another demonstration, this one aimed at honoring victims of abuse, not football coaches.

The tone for a Saturday football game under a bright sun was born in the darkness of a Friday night vigil at the epicenter of the Penn State campus. Spread across a grassy plain yards from the streets where demonstrators clashed with the police days earlier, several thousand students gathered holding lighted candles, a quickly organized rally in support of sexual abuse victims that concluded when a university bell tower chimed 10 times to mark the hour.

Meanwhile, Michael Weinreb's essay for Grantland offers a subtle alternative to a debate that threatens to make caricatures of its major figures, including Paterno and football itself. The rise of the Penn State football colossus was inextricable from Penn State's rise to a higher level of education and research.

My dad has been a chemistry professor at Penn State since 1978. It is a far better academic institution than it was when he first arrived. It is a far better institution than it was when I graduated in the mid-1990s, and, despite everything we've learned in the past week, you cannot deny that a great deal of that has to do with Joe Paterno. There are serious students at Penn State, despite what you saw last night, and there is incredible research being done at Penn State, despite its reputation as a fallback party school for kids from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and all those little towns that dot the Keystone State. Joe Paterno raised millions of dollars for this university; his name is on its library. He is a complicated man who was brought down by what appear to be terrible crimes against the most vulnerable members of our society, victims who are foremost in all our minds this morning, victims whose emotional pain obviously dwarfs any of ours.

His conclusion is all the more convincing for this perspective: just because he was so necessary to that improvement in fortunes doesn't mean Paterno can stay.

He was gone on Saturday. And Penn State lost to Nebraska, 17-14.

Update: Let us now reexamine the perils of filing early. The Times report by Bill Pennington includes this anecdote about John Matko, who thought the game should have been canceled outright:

John Matko, a Penn State graduate, stood near the players’ entrance holding a handmade sign that read, “It’s not about wins and losses, cancel this game!”

Matko, 34, had driven from his Pittsburgh home.

“I decided last night that I couldn’t just watch this game on TV like nothing happened,” he said. “I had to come here and take a stand for the children.”

Thousands of ticket-holders passed Matko in the pregame hours. A few stopped to take pictures of him and his sign. One or two shook his hand. No one, he said, addressed him in a derogatory manner.

The Washington Times, in a story picked up by Gawker this afternoon, also spoke to Matko. Lesser minds had weighed in on his message as the day went on:

“That is such bull–-!” one young woman screamed at him after glancing at the signs. “Who the f– do you think you are?”

Eyes hidden by blue aviator sunglasses, Matko didn’t respond.


A beer showered Matko. One man slapped his stomach. Another called him a “p–-.”

“I understand the culture,” said Matko, who graduated from Penn State in 2000 with a degree in nutrition. “I was part of it. It doesn’t surprise me what I’m getting from them.”

Not so non-derogatory after all.

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