It’s an easy, scenic three hours up the road from here to Happy Valley. The most exciting thing you’ll see is a spun-out 18-wheeler and an abundance of woodland rodents. Penn State holds some of the most prescient iconography in college sports, so it’s not surprising that there are signs of its span here in Baltimore (just check out this Natty JoH shirt, available from the Penn State Baltimore alumni association). If you grew up around the Baltimore area, odds are you know at least a handful of Penn Staters who spent their college days huddling into Beaver Stadium. At a time like this, these people are impossible to reason with, which is completely understandable.
I have visited the campus exactly once in my life, a when I was in college myself. Unfortunately the football team was away that week. It generally reminded me of the other big colleges I had visited; Maryland, Virginia Tech, Ohio State, James Madison, except for one notable difference: the students at Penn State are unwaveringly smitten with their university.
The only other time in my life I’ve witnessed such a large group of people so connected to a place is when I lived in New York City. Everyone who lives there for any amount of time goes through a phase when they are completely in love with the idea of living in New York. They never shut up about it. This phase usually fades out when you begin to crave central air conditioning and affordable living. The Penn State dosage of this disease is stronger than the New York strain. It sticks with people for the rest of their lives. It’s the largest secret society in the United States. If you’re in, you’re all-in. If you’re not, you simply don’t belong.
For as long as I’ve been alive, the leader of this society, whether literal or figurative, has been Joseph Vincent Paterno. I don’t think Penn State fandom is a cult, but there is an undeniable cult of personality surrounding Paterno. When you see that the entire populace of the campus knows his home address (so much so that it seems to have become his de facto press room), you begin to realize this isn’t an ordinary football coach. Even as loved as Nick Saban is at Alabama, if the Crimson Tide faithful knew where his mailbox was, someone would’ve dumped a flaming bag of poo in it after the LSU loss last week. Paterno walks the streets of State College with a rapport and impunity not seen elsewhere in modern sports. It almost reminds of me of Denzel Washington in Training Day, who was able to leave his car unlocked in the neighborhoods over which he held sway. Nobody was dumb enough to mess with him, and until now, nobody in or outside of Penn State’s circle was brazen enough to poke significant holes in Paterno’s legacy. Sure, one could make jabs here and there about his age’s impact on recruiting in recent years or his infrequent presence on the sidelines during games, but that comes with the territory of coaching at 84.
The horrid allegations that have come to light this week will certainly take care of the legacy aspect of Paterno’s career. In the age of documentation, the facts are simply beyond spin or escape. The coaching legend will always be synonymous with Penn State football, but unfortunately the culture that allowed a suspected child abuser to flourish inside of it will always be synonymous in some way with Paterno. These things are impossible to judge, though, and maybe this will be a footnote on his Wikipedia page in 2031 rather than part of his main bio. Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Michael Vick and Alex Rodriguez were all associated with amoral crises at the peaks of their careers. Time has already morphed how we view these athletes and what their transgressions meant to their image in the annals of sports history. Paterno’s lack of judgement in this instance comes at the end of what, for the most part, has been an illustrious coaching career. It’s impossible to say whether the world will be able to separate the two in the future. I’m not even sure whether they should.
This is the aspect that seems to be what gets Penn State fans and alums so hot and bothered. Paterno has been a sacred institution, the face of the university, since 1966. The way Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were swiftly brought down by the Board of Trustees yesterday, it’s easy to see how Penn Staters across the world are now on the defensive. If there is a defining characteristic of the Nittany Lions, it’s their overwhelming pride in being associated with the university. As you can see from this popular Facebook posting, being a Nittany Lion this week is a bit of a conflict in values. How does one successfully express outrage and pride at an institution they are a part of? It’s a question Americans struggle with all the time, and one Penn State alums, parents, friends, families and fans will need to ask themselves in the months to come.
If you have a Penn Stater in your life, it may not be easy to understand what they are going through. The blue and white blood coursing through their veins tells them to circle the wagons and defend their institution and their former coach at all costs. The human in them wants justice for the victims and sweeping change to restore the university’s image. As the Facebook posting points out, we don’t understand, but not because we aren’t as “special” as PSU alums. We don’t understand because we’re on the outside looking in. Joe Paterno has not been our surrogate grandfather, we don’t really care how many Big Ten titles the Nittany Lions win, and we don’t write down “The Pennsylvania State University” on our resumes for the rest of our lives.
The world is crystal clear outside Happy Valley. Those who committed crimes and those who protected them need face the harshest judgement possible. Within the Valley, everything is simply a confusing mess.
Dave Gilmore lives in Baltimore and writes “The Win Column” for Baltimore Sports Report. He is currently working on a novel about college football. Find him on Twitter @dave_gilmore or visit his web site at davegilmorejr.com