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Why I Won’t Watch HBO’s Paterno Movie

When I arrived at Penn State for my freshman year, the residence desk didn’t hand me any Kool-Aid to drink. I wasn’t asked at our Class of 2017 orientation to blindly swear allegiance to some university creed. And similarly (you may want to sit down), I wasn’t forced to offer a blood sacrifice in reverence to our almighty former football coach.

Some of that may be hard for you to believe. If so, it’s hardly your fault. If you have watched any form of media in the last seven years, this may be what Penn State is to you. There is this word that’s probably floating around in your head: “Cult.”

And from what I understand, I am a part of that cult, so I may as well get a chance to weigh in.

I won’t watch the HBO movie “Paterno” that aired this weekend. Every few years when this story resurfaces, I have to watch. I watch as my former university’s student body is represented as a one-dimensional group of stooges so awash in their fog of collegiate football that they’re unable to consider the abuse of children.

It goes further than that too, as students (and alumni — that’s me) are often blamed for being so football-obsessed that they somehow fostered an environment that allowed for a nightmare to have occurred, too blindly devout to statues and win columns to let in a dose of reality. And truly, I am so very tired of it.

Because it’s absurd.

So much of this debate happens because some have had the audacity to question the widely accepted culpability of our university, our student body, and yes, our former football coach. It is only a small portion of us, as most people I know have crawled into the fetal position and called “uncle.” Some people on our side call it cowardice, but I don’t blame my frail companions. Why bother offering your position for consideration when the response is always as follows: “Go back to your cult and shower with boys.”

As one of the last defenders, I know this can be exhausting. The problem is this, and many of you are not going to like it. The Penn State scandal, particularly the role of our now-deceased coach, is anything but clear cut. Try answering these questions:

Why would a coach cover up the sex crimes of a nobody in the program (Jerry Sandusky) in 1971 and 1976 as the news says he did? Certainly that decision added risk that his legacy would crumble rather than protecting it against such a possibility.

And why then, after some 30 years, would he bother reporting Sandusky to his higher-ups when he already decided to cover it up in the ’70s?

Why, if Paterno knew about Sandusky’s criminality, did he allow his own grandchildren to be around him until just months before his arrest?

And why are our coach and our university being accused of a cover up when the head of campus police was told, when the president of Sandusky’s charity was told, and when the attorney Wendell Courtney was told? How is it a cover up if an incident was reported to the Department of Public Welfare, and Children and Youth Services, and when the District Attorney knew about it and stopped an investigation into Sandusky due to a lack of evidence?

Why did Mike McQueary golf with Sandusky in tournaments for years following what he “saw?”

We aren’t allowed to ask those questions. We are told immediately to shut up. We are part of the cult. And this is a big problem. Not just for us, but for everyone. When society collectively agrees to place a muzzle on the group most closely entwined in a story, who have the most incentive to take in the nuance and day to day detail, we lose an important perspective.

Is that perspective biased? Of course. Am I biased? Yes, I have an inherent bias because I love the university. That can’t be denied. But have we then decided that the moral outrage of people who haven’t read a thing about a case should be prioritized over more in-depth understanding that involves a degree of bias?

I promise you this: If logical, definitive evidence existed that Joe Paterno willingly covered up sex abuse to protect his legacy, not a single member of the Penn State alumni would be defending him. How do I know that? I’m a Penn Stater. We aren’t lunatics. Despite the media’s attempts to equate fandom with cult-hood, we’re the same as every other community. We have a great deal of affection for a place that is extraordinarily special to us. And if the careful examination of questionable reporting that dragged Penn State through the mud makes me a part of a cult, then pass the Kool-Aid.

I will not be watching the film. But I have heard the final scene involves Sara Ganim getting a call from a 1976 accuser. Here is what one plaintiff’s lawyer said about the allegation:

“The headlines of these stories is Paterno knew of Sandusky’s molestation in the ’70s, ’76, or ’77. I’m unaware of direct, irrefutable evidence that that’s the case. Believe me, I’m the last person to defend the guy, but I am the first person to believe in our justice system. And I think you need more than anecdotal evidence or speculative evidence.”

Why did HBO choose to end the film with one of the most unfounded allegations in the entire case? Because they know what every Penn Stater has already found out: That the only people who will notice the absurdity of using the 1976 case as the exclamation point of the film have already been delegitimized.

So I’m not watching. And I’m staying off social media, too. I’m tired of being incessantly bludgeoned by the moral superiority of people whose deepest research on a complex case includes reading the ESPN text alert that flashed on their phones. The tragedy is that this thing won’t turn around from the inside. No one cares what we say.

We need you. You, salivating over your next shower joke to put in the comment section. We need you to have the compassion to learn about this, about us. About who we are, and who we never were.

For what it’s worth, we would do the same for you.


This post was submitted as community content, and has been lightly edited. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of our staff. To have your work published on Onward State, visit our submission page.

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