Friday, November 18, 2011

The Road to Penn State

STATE COLLEGE, PA. - The road to State College - home of Pennsylvania State University - passes through wrinkled, weathered mountains, down long valleys flanked by tree-covered ridgelines, past modest farmhouses with satellite dishes in the yard and, finally, winds down into a hill-ringed bowl called Happy Valley. The enormous football stadium - Beaver Statium seats nearly 108,000 fans - is overlooked by Mt. Nittany, namesake of Penn State's Nittany Lions sports teams.

These days, the road to Penn State - which I drove with my wife and relatives last weekend for a fraught football game against the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers - is more like the road to purdition, and Happy Valley is far from giddy with joy.

As most people in North America know - and all fans of U.S. college football are aware - a high-profile former Penn State assisant coach is under arrest for alleged child molestation. Moreover, two senior Penn State officials are in custody for supposedly covering up the offenses and lying to a grand jury. The university president has been deposed. Penn State's legendary head football coach, Joe Paterno, has been fired. Some of the alleged abuse occurred while the accused worked for Paterno and several alleged assaults occured on university property. Paterno is not charged with any crime, but the famously morally upright coach has been slammed for following only the letter of state law, passing on information about the supposed assaults to his university superiors but not calling police, himself. He resigned, effective at the end of the season, but was fired just hours later. By phone.

It was an intensely emotional time to be at Penn State at last Saturday's game, on a visit I had planned long before the current storm broke. I visited a community suddenly - and, it can be argued, belatedly - introspective. I saw people deeply saddened about the apparent experiences of at least eight abused boys and determined to rebuild their university's honorable reputation. The Nittany Lions football team walked arm-in-arm onto the field at the start of the game in a slow processional and knelt at midfield with their Nebraska opponents prior to kick-off. It was a moving moment. Nearly all 108,000 spectators observed a long moment of silence. One jerk yelled out "Play football!'' "Shut up!'' a woman retorted. After a few titters, the huge crowd was absolutely silent. There was eloquence and dignity in the silence.

After that, the game - won by the visitors, 17-14 - seemed anticlimatic. People understand there is more at stake than football. For Penn State fans, it was a singular experience, partly because of the seriousness of the charges of child abuse and partly because Joe Paterno was no longer on the coaching staff he joined as an assistant in 1950. It's hard to overstate how revered JoePa, is he is called, is in Pennsylvania. Back in the '80s, I strolled into one of the many lackluster "family'' restaurants that dot the state and nearly walked into a life-size cardboard cutout likeness of Paterno. I almost expected the coach to show us to our table. Last weekend, after wandering through lingering fall color on PSU's leafy campus to the hugely popular campus Creamery, I noted that Peachy Paterno - vanilla ice cream with peaches - is still on the menu. Well, for now, anyway.

Today, more sad news: Paterno's family just announced that the 84-year-old has lung cancer, supposedly treatable. Let's hope so.

There's a lot of accountability to be established, a lot of healing to be done and a long road ahead for Penn State - and there's a lot of thinking to be done about the wisdom of falling in love with a sport, a coach or an institution without also bringing a measure of scrutiny along for the ride.

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