Here we are in college football season. I always look forward to the start-up, the suddenly packed stadiums, the cheerleaders in their emblazoned, chest-hugging sweaters, the tailgate parties—and inevitably too much booze. It is all so retro, so American. Even in L.A., where we don’t have a dramatic shift in the weather and where the fans don’t have to be seriously bundled up, there is anticipation. The city focuses on our two big old venues, the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum, home to UCLA and USC, respectively. Both built in the early 1920s, they are a piece of our history, never more than when they’re filled with roaring crowds, the autumn skies a golden blue. All that gets to me, as does the prowess of the young and gifted running back who snakes through crowds of behemoths or the occasional quarterback with the powerful arm, the guys you know are destined for the pros.
Now the scene comes once again to life (it could be a musical, something on a Broadway stage). But this year the sport seems to have a nasty undertow, a sadness that mars the normal pleasure. It is hard to summon the usual feeling, to register the old thrill as the teams stream onto the field in all their adrenalized cockiness.
The problem is one cannot help thinking about what went on in the locker room shower at Penn State University. That large, paunchy guy raping a young boy, the “skin-on-skin smacking sound” their bodies made, as the incident was described by the man who saw and heard it in 2001. The scene is impossible to expunge from the mind’s eye. It overlays the on-field hoopla. The images jostle one another just like the players on the field. The sounds, too, are jumbled: rah, rah, smack, smack.
The molester, of course, is the now-jailed Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator of the country’s most successful college football program. This wasn’t just a team but a revered, triumphant, money-raising institution. The witness was graduate assistant Mike McQueary. When he reported what he had witnessed to his superiors, they did nothing. Sandusky kept his job and kept on molesting young boys, at least ten—abuse that took place from 1998 until 2011, when the sick, collusive mess became public.
I am a child of Penn State. No, I didn’t study there. My father did, and he loved it with the fervor of the football-crazy alum that he was. I spent fall weekends watching his team on television. Those were good times. My British stepmother would put out a buffet of her mustard eggs or bangers and mash, depending on the weather, as we huddled around the set. Friends would come, other alumni like Julius Epstein—half of the famous Epstein brothers writing team that gave us the movie Casablanca—a twinkly pixie of a man who was, while less voluble, as die-hard a fan as my dad. Sometimes the two of them would travel together to Pennsylvania to watch a game in person, trips that left them ebullient if the Nittany Lions won or deflated if they did not. My papa had a pendant in his office and a photo of himself with Joe Paterno.
Ah yes, the famous-turned-infamous JoePa. My father adored him. They had met on a number of occasions, my actor dad being a somewhat well-known grad. He proudly told me of the coach’s high standards, how he nurtured his players, made sure they studied. There had never been a leader of young men as upstanding, as determined, as admirable. My father was not alone in his affections, which were almost filial, as if the younger Paterno were, in fact, his “Pa,” too. It looked to me as if the whole world of men had a crush on this fellow with the heavy-framed glasses and the winning ways, that kind of male animal-pack idolatry that often attends athletic heroes and those who lead them to victory. It is thick, sentimental stuff, the flames fanned by equally smitten sportswriters and game announcers.
Then came the reckoning, the Shakespearean fall. The dethroning seemed to happen in an instant, but the thing that would bring him down had been going on for years. What we learned is that JoePa knew as far back as 1998 that Sandusky was into little boys, every awful pun intended.
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Their schools, like our own USC, have had major scandals, but these involved violations like players accepting gifts. What occurred at Penn State is in another moral universe. The closest analogy is the Roman Catholic Church, which has—in diocese after diocese, state after state, country after country—hidden its pedophiliac priests, moving them around like chess pieces to do harm again. That was true in L.A., where retired Archbishop Roger Mahony, respected for his solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers, harbored his fair share of child molesters; estimates range from 19 to 247. In 2007, Mahony and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles apologized for abuses by priests and paid $660 million to more than 500 alleged victims. Nationwide, billions have been spent in settlements with victims (similar suits are beginning to be filed against Penn State, and their number is expected to be monumental). Yet only this past summer in Philadelphia was the first senior church official in the United States, Monsignor William J. Lynn, convicted of covering up abuses by priests under his supervision. “You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn,” the judge said on sentencing him to three to six years, “but you chose wrong.”
How crisp and clean that sounds—how obvious—and how long in coming. One has to wonder what was going through Joe Paterno’s mind. Was he haunted by what he was hiding? When he saw Sandusky up close, did he experience an internal twitch, a flicker of repugnance—or fear, knowing that this would all be discovered at some point? Or was he too much a victim of his own mythology to allow himself to picture, just once, the smack-smack of bodies in that locker room? Did he think the triumph of the young men under his tutelage could balance out all the horrible things being done to other younger men by someone under his protection? What kind of calculation was he making?
Joe Paterno lived long enough for the tide to turn, but he wasn’t around to see the punishments meted out to his cherished program, to see his team stripped of its 112 victories scored between 1998 and 2011, the molestation years. And he wasn’t around to see his statue taken down. I looked at that footage, the men wheeling the sculpture away, and for a moment I was glad my father wasn’t here. But then I thought, No, he needed to bear witness. Joe Paterno had failed the ultimate test of character: He had protected his players while sacrificing others. I wanted my father to acknowledge this. It was his sorrow and outrage I needed to hear. My dad had made major strides in dealing with and understanding topics—like pedophilia—that had rarely been talked about during his prime. He would have hated what happened to his hallowed coach, but he would have been deeply offended by what that man had permitted.
I have Catholic friends who have had to forgive their church in order to continue embracing their faith. They don’t make apologies—never that. But they keep attending weekly Mass because it is the sustenance in their lives. Viewing a football game is hardly of the same magnitude, but the ritual brought joy to my father’s life; it reconnected him to happy days on that giant campus, to his own beginnings. The years ahead will be tough around there. Those lawsuits will pile up. There will be ugliness exposed in detail as an entire institution is brought to account again and again. Penn State will continue to be in the news for a very long time—and not in a good way.
Nonetheless, if my pop were here, I think he would still want to watch “his” team in action. He wasn’t a bailer. He wouldn’t have abandoned the Nittany Lions, even in their much diminished form. Penn State was his school; it would always be his school. And I probably would watch with him.