November 15, 2011
JOE AMES is an alumnus of the Pennsylvania State University. He served as editor of The Lionhearted: Penn State’s Only Independent Newspaper from 1991 – 1993. The paper gained national attention when two female undergraduate students, both journalism majors and members of the student club “Womyn’s Concerns,” stole and burned thousands of Lionhearted newspapers on the lawn of its advisor’s State College law office, to the applause of Penn State faculty and administrators.
Mr. Ames, who earned both a bachelor’s degree in Humanities and an MBA at Penn State, offers his view of the recent scandal.
“WE are Penn State.”
Even those with superficial exposure to Penn State are familiar with its famous, antiphonal football chant, “We are Penn State.” Few people, even Penn State students and professionals, know its origin. In the late 1940s, the students of the football team heard rumours that SMU requested a meeting to discuss the exclusion of a black student from their upcoming game at the “Sugar Bowl.” The story goes that a student teammate spoke first and for the whole team, “We are Penn State. There will be no meeting.” The game was played, the black student went on to produce a score-tying touchdown, Penn State launched itself into the Civil Rights movement, and a righteous football cheer was born.
“We are Penn State” implied personal loyalty to a fellow student as a matter of principle, and the principle was more important than their extracurricular football play.Yet for the 109,000 football fans packed into Penn State’s Beaver Stadium last Saturday, “We are Penn State” is a statement of identity similar to how Christians understand Christ’s remarkable statement in St. John’s Gospel, 10:30: I and my Father are one.
Except with a sinister turn to it.
In a curious inversion of Nature, the creation – the institution that is Penn State’s football program – is served by the creators: the students, alumni and taxpayers of the Commonwealth. And, the creator-servants will defend “Penn State” to the point of self-sacrifice. Why? What is so important about the one-time “Farmers’ High School”?
Most everything to be said about the monstrous Jerry Sandusky has been said. Should even more horrifying details emerge (and they very likely will), who would be surprised? However, I want to explore something at least as sinister, the Cult of Personality that is Penn State University. Unfortunately, I have some expertise in this matter and understand how unimaginably impossible it is for most to grasp. It takes a lifetime of indoctrination and discipline to produce the submissive mentality of a “Nittany Lion.”
“Penn State” is more than Penn State. The psychological construct and marketing image has little to do with the legal entity that is the Pennsylvania State University, a 501(c)(3) non-profit educational corporation established in 1865.
“Penn State” is more than Jerry Sandusky or those innocent boys whose souls were murdered. It is more than federal grant money to prove man-made global warming. It is more than Joe Paterno … but not by much.
“Penn State,” you see, is a pretense, a persona, an identity worn by otherwise quite unremarkable and quite ordinary nobodies who exist vicariously through the exploits of their vaunted football team, its pomp, glory, conspicuous pageantry and manly bragging rights (easy girls, endless booze, the best drugs, and now we know … little boys).
We are Penn State. Defending ”Penn State” against the slightest insult is tantamount to defending oneself. If “Penn State” falls, what is to become of those whose very selves are defined by the cult?
The delusion is quite valuable too. We’re talking billions of dollars. The artificial halo of Penn State football covers a lot of ground far outside Beaver Stadium, all the way from your local voting booth to Harrisburg, Washington, DC, and beyond. Penn State is a racket, as we used to say here in Philly when we were more honest with each other.
So what do we have?
We see a common mythology that encourages various but selfish interests: access to impressionable minds for political purposes; unlimited opportunity for grift and payola; gigantic profit to be taken from gullible fools. Egos abound. Criminality flourishes. Academic intrigue enough to make the Borgias proud.
But the paramount motive is spiritual. Penn State football is a religious experience. Joe Paterno (whose name derives from the Latin root for father) is their god; Beaver Stadium their temple. “Players” are avenging angels. University officials are priests; football executives, high priests; Mount Nittany, a holy place that ascends to heaven. Happy Valley is Paradise. Nittany Lions are the Chosen People.
To admit football players are often enough common thugs or not-so-petty criminals; that a winning coach is a pederast; or the great and benevolent Paterno looked the other way for reasons unknown and unfathomable is to admit the faith is false. It is an existential crisis in the same way a boy’s soul-murder by way of homosexual rape is existential, except the boy is innocent.
In short, “Penn State” is a cult of personality little different from that of Jim Jones or a thousand others in history. Grown men allow themselves to be purchased to evil for the right to paint themselves Blue and White.
We are Penn State.
— Comments —
A reader writes:
The cult of Penn State has its issue, but it is not the cause of the crime against the humanity of these boys. The culprit is the homosexual Sandusky and those that embraced and “grew” tolerant of his
I don’t think Penn State is a cult. It is no different than any other elite college football team. Some people at Penn State made horrific errors, and I hope the full weight of the law falls on them. But the students and other fans are like all elite college fans: devoted. I am devoted to this year’s #1 team, LSU. We have won more national championships than Penn State and are going to do it again this year in the New Orleans Superdome, if logic and faith coincide. Without this devotion, this “want” in Coach Miles’ words, is essential. Lou Holtz, the National Championship coach at Notre Dame said the same thing: a championship university must be fully committed before it can become a champion.
Is this wrong? No. We are tribal, to the consternation of the liberals, who believe we can be whatever we will. So how can I be a champion when a member of Penn State grounds me into dirt? Now, I am too tired to go into thinking about why tribal might not violate Christianity.
In that vein, below is a – slightly edited – comment I posted on one of those Facebook threads that I think reinforces your point:
Setting aside (as we shouldn’t) the abuse itself for a moment, the focus on Joe Paterno and Penn State football instead of what happened to the victims – witness the riots in the streets of State College, not in outraged response to the abuses but to… Paterno’s firing – is another reminder of how disordered priorities are in big-time college sports. In the case of big school football and basketball programs (for starters), isn’t it better to admit those players are professionals hired to raise money for the institutions, and drop the pretense that they are amateurs and – with rare exceptions – actual students? Call it what it is, and see how fans respond when that specious “student-athlete” gloss is gone. A Division III swimmer or lacrosse player is a student-athlete; an Army football player is a student-athlete; a Penn State football starter is a paid professional. And, as other commenters note, it might help remind these “schools” that their true mission is to educate students, not provide spectacles fit for the Circus Maximus!
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