Shellshocked

11.14.11

Faithful Struggle With Scandal at Penn State, Where Football Is Religion

Penn State struggles to cope with the shock of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky's sex-abuse charges and legendary Lion Joe Paterno's abrupt firing—a tough task for a community where football is religion and religion is football. Plus, sources tell The Daily Beast that Penn State faces a civil lawsuit.

Shortly before the Jerry Sandusky sexual-molestation saga became a full-blown catastrophe, there was a whiteout at Penn State’s Beaver Stadium. The weather report had predicted snow, but it needn’t have: close to 100,000 Nittany Lions fans, pridefully cloaked in all-white T-shirts, showed up in solidarity.

It was a common tradition among the football team’s faithful, followed, on Sunday, by yet another one. During a lively sermon at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, a pastor compared the practice to St. John the Divine’s arrival in heaven.

“Just last week,” the  Rev. Eric Shafer said, “my son Kyle and I were there for that thrilling win against Illinois. As Kyle and I were walking out of the stadium, I said, ‘That was just a football game, with 70,000 people. Can you imagine what heaven’s going to be like?’”

Over the top? Yes. Particularly since Sandusky, a former assistant coach at Penn State, and a member of that church, had already been arrested. But this is Penn State—a place where football is religion and religion is football.

Since then, the problems at Penn State have metastasized, leading to a domino-like toppling of the university’s top brass, and plenty of comparisons to the Catholic Church. As in the church scandal, the victims in the Penn State case were all boys. Like the church, Penn State sports seemed to operate under a veil of impunity, with a public-relations strategy so complex that the university went to great—and expensive—lengths to protect its seemingly squeaky-clean image. Like the Catholic Church, this was an institution based on ritual, worship, and, at times, all-white uniforms. And like the Catholic Church, football culture can be brutally homophobic.

But the disciple-like devotion to Penn State athletics, and the religious invocation of coach Joe Paterno as God, goes even further than that. And anyone who walked across Penn State’s campus could see it. It was there in the football posters that were framed and displayed in storefront windows surrounding campus. It was there in the giant, Jesus-like statue of Paterno—JoePa, as his acolytes affectionately called him—near the stadium entrance. It was there in the signs of support at least one Paterno supporter had on display last week: “Two of my favorite ‘J’s’ in life: Jesus and Joe Pa.”

Even youth sports teams in the area took Paterno’s words like gospel: their uniforms bore only their team name, not that of the players. Because, as the man himself put it, “It’s the name on the front of the jersey that matters most—not the one of the back.”

“He was an icon,” says Derrick Barkdoll, a Penn State junior. “He was the image of the school.”

As that image has crumbled—the beloved JoePa kicked off his throne; his former demigod assistant, Sandusky, facing 40 counts of sexual assault against minors—it would be an understatement to say that Penn State is soul-searching.

On Friday, there was a candlelight vigil, instead of a pep rally, in advance of Saturday’s game; church leaders have said they’re doing outreach to bring in students, as the message begins to shift.

Like the Catholic Church, this was an institution based on ritual, worship, and, at times, all-white uniforms.

“This is like 9/11 for Happy Valley,” says Ben Novak, a former member of the Penn State Board of Trustees, referring to the area surrounding Penn State’s campus. “It will affect the community’s consciousness for years.”

And back at St. Paul’s Universal Methodist Church, just off of College Avenue, the Rev. Karen Urbanski is taking a different tone.

Ushers passed around little pieces of paper on which congregants could inscribe messages of support to victims of sexual abuse. Urbanski referred openly to the scandal, describing how the community has been “rocked to the core.” In the pews, you could see people on the verge of tears.

“We need to listen to the Scriptures,” said Urbanski.

This time, the message was not about football.

—With reporting by Kevin Cirilli