The cult of Penn State
I grew up in central Pennsylvania, steeped in the myth of Penn State football. I was 4 when I learned the alma mater. By the time I was 10, I knew every player’s number and name. Every Saturday that there was a home game, we’d drive an hour from our tiny town “over the mountain,” as my father called it, and sit high in the stands, in rain, snow or autumn sunshine. We’d do this cheer: “We are! Penn State!” The stadium would thunder. My parents had not even gone to college, but they’d yell it until their throats ached. Often, my mother would bring along her rosary beads.
“Worship” is not a strong enough word for the way we felt about Joe Paterno. Our regard for him was unquestioning. For one thing, he was Italian, like my mother. But the main thing, in our eyes, was that he was “classy.” That was the word my parents used, always. The coach never bragged. He never gloated. He didn’t put up with undignified antics. He made sure his players got a good education, like his, and were set for a life beyond football.
This was no small thing. That part of the country was, even then, nobody’s job magnet, and as the years passed, the university only became more dominant as an economic engine. Penn State was the way to success, and, we felt, there was no greater success than to end up like Paterno — good family, good work ethic, accomplishment in something of value. And Penn State football was very much “of value.” It could lift a young man up and out from a place like ours to a finer life and destination, and turn him into the kind of person we each wanted to be.
So I went to Penn State when I graduated from my small, rural high school. My parents were overjoyed. When I brought home a football player my freshman year, they were so thrilled that they took him on vacation with us. He was a second stringer who knew he’d never play professional sports, but he nonetheless felt that Paterno had changed his life forever. My parents treated him with a deference that didn’t surprise me. That was how it was — the Nittany Lions were royalty.
Then, the year I turned 20, I started asking questions. One night, my roommate — a wisecracking scholarship kid from Philadelphia — asked me why the “white people around here” were so hung up on some game played by “no-neck blockheads.” I tried to explain about Paterno and class and character in sports and what it all meant. She just rolled her eyes.
I tried to shake off the conversation, but her words vexed me. Who did she think she was, anyway? This was an institution. How dare she disrespect it? There were good guys and bad guys. A right way and a wrong way. And if you could question the rightness of this one excellent thing we had all believed in forever, what else might you question? Where else might true colors shade to gray?
But the seed had been planted. Suddenly I couldn’t stop noticing my own deference to athletes — the way I’d overlook the superior attitude they took around my male friends who weren’t athletic, the way they got dibs on the easy classes while the rest of us pulled all-nighters and never complained. The way I’d listen, rapt, to their sports homilies, like a geisha. I began to distance myself from football. I started hanging around with pre-med students, pot smokers, Young Republicans, kids who majored in economics, kids of other ethnicities, foreign kids.
It dawned on me that Penn State had whole other facets, that maybe I had been missing out on what it really meant to be part of a university. One day, a new friend — an artistic kid whose parents lived, of all places, in California — casually questioned the community’s reverence for sports, and something snapped in me. I told my parents I wouldn’t be needing my season tickets. We got into a blistering argument, and I think I said something about no longer believing in “the cult of football.”
I remember feeling, as I spoke up, that this was an act of betrayal, not to football, exactly, but to a worldview that was dear to people who had lifted me up to a possibility of a finer life and finer destinations. For years afterward, I couldn’t hear the voice of a sports announcer without feeling that I had rejected something I could never get back, that I had gone over the mountain and returned, classless, to despise my loved ones’ ideals.
More than three decades have passed since I left Pennsylvania. I live, of all places, in California now. I have tried, this week, to explain to friends here how good people could be so blinded by loyalty that unspeakable acts might transpire, right before them, and still feel unable to ask the obvious questions. I’ve tried to explain my own mixed feelings to myself.
Yes, I have told them, Paterno really was a great coach. Yes, he really did force kids to study for hours every night in the library, where he and his assistants could track them down. Yes, he really did change the lives of his players. And yes, as the decades passed, the belief in the essential superiority of the man and his program really did grow to the point that it ceased to be a good thing, to the point that maybe even he was afraid to wonder about it, lest the gray areas take on a life of their own.
Back home, my friends and relatives are heartsick. Those poor children, they say. That poor old Italian man, so frail now in his doorway, so seemingly betrayed by the sick underling that everyone suddenly seems to have forgotten. How could this have happened? Did they not know good guys from bad guys? What became of that excellent thing we had all believed in forever?
So many questions. It’s hard to ask questions. But that’s what happens when something forces you to see clearly. You open your eyes, and there you are — over the mountain, where nothing will ever look the same.
Shawn Hubler, a former Times staff writer, is a freelance journalist.
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