Huntington, West Virginia is the type of place that people don’t visit without a good reason to do so. Its industrialized infrastructure contrasts sharply with the dense forestry of Appalachia that surrounds it, and the billowing smoke stacks along the Ohio River tell a story of a city where hard work equates to survival.
Like many rust belt cities in this country, times have seemingly always been hard in Huntington. Sources of optimism are increasingly rare while in the midst of a grueling lifetime of mill and factory work.
However, in the years leading up to 1970, the Marshall University football team was one of those few glimmers of hope. Every Saturday afternoon, the people of the small industrial city would forget their troubles for a few hours and pin their hopes to the players of the Thundering Herd. When they would belt out their trademark chant of “WE ARE – MARSHALL,” they meant it wholeheartedly. Their identity had temporarily shifted from blue-collar worker to MU football fan.
So, as one can imagine, when the Southern Airways jet carrying 37 Marshall football players, eight coaches, and 25 boosters plummeted into the West Virginia woods, killing everyone on board, the entire city was catastrophically devastated. In mere seconds, the people of Huntington had lost loved ones, the university had lost its football team, and the city had lost its identity. It was as if the shared soul of the community was ripped out following the 1970 crash.
However, new head coach Jack Lengyel and interim President Donald Dedmon refused to let the tragedy equal the demise of the Marshall football program. They petitioned the NCAA to allow them to play freshmen, and recruited current Marshall athletes and students to fill out the roster. When they took the field again in 1971, they did so with a roster almost entirely devoid of talent.
It didn’t matter.
The continued existence of the MU football team following the crash of Flight 932 reminded the people of Huntington that life could go on. In the face of overwhelming heartbreak, the game of football helped to heal a community dealing with inexplicable pain.
This is not the current situation at Penn State University. However, the people of State College do not seem to understand this. Nor do they totally grasp the severity of the problems at hand.
Since I wrote on this subject last week, a great deal has transpired in Happy Valley. Legendary head football coach Joe Paterno was fired by the board of trustees, as was university president Graham Spanier. Assistant coach Mike McQueary was placed on administrative leave. The CEO of The Second Mile, Jack Raykovitz, resigned.
Basically, the hierarchies of the three institutions at the center of the child molestation case against Jerry Sandusky have been reorganized. Certainly, far more needs to be done. This is, however, a good start.
That being said, none of this has dislodged Nittany Lion football from its pedestal atop the state of Pennsylvania.
Immediately following the late-night press conference during which Paterno was relieved of his duties, State College erupted. The students and residents were entirely at a loss as to why their beloved JoePa was fired. After years of being portrayed as a demigod, it was unfathomable to them that he could be at all responsible for the continued deviousness of his former assistant.
“Success with honor” was the code he had so famously lived by, and it was seemingly impossible that he would violate this.
As a result, they did what drunk, angry, college kids do—they rioted.
They turned over cars, waved PSU flags, and longingly chanted for Paterno. For a few alcohol and rage filled hours, they selfishly forgot about the lives of the children that had been ruined both directly and indirectly by Penn State football, and mourned the loss of their football coach. In doing so, they sent a strong message to the world that the only thing that mattered was the continued prestige of Penn State football.
The pathetic irony of all of this is that while the students willfully defended the perfect legacy of Paterno, they failed to recognize that it was the legend of JoePa that spurred the conspiracy to cover up Sandusky’s crimes in the first place.
As horrible a person as Jerry Sandusky is, the painful truth is that he is not entirely unique. Monsters like him pervade societies all around the world. This being the tragic reality — the pervading narrative that has arisen has become the unfathomable complicity of university officials at Penn State.
Each day that passes, more details arise regarding the case against Sandusky. As they do, it becomes increasingly clear just how deep the cover up goes. We now know that the university knew that the former defensive coordinator was a sick man, and were aware of at least two of his charges of molestation. Despite this, Sandusky not only continued to walk as a free man, he maintained a constant presence at the university.
The coverage of this in the media has been widespread, so there is no need to go in depth on the justification for this assessment. However, what is important is that the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the gross negligence was an intentional attempt to protect the perfect ideal of Joe Paterno and Penn State football.
On Saturday, the Nittany Lions played the University of Nebraska at Beaver Stadium in State College. Those in attendance described the festivities and ambience surrounding the game as similar to that of a wake. The majority of the crowd wore blue to show their opposition to child abuse, but they might as well have been wearing black. While the rest of the country prayed for Sandusky’s victims, Penn State fans mourned the demise of their football program’s perfect reputation.
At one point, in a pathetic attempt to align their troubles with those of the tragedy stricken Marshall fans, a “WE ARE- PENN STATE” chant rang out and reached an ear-shattering decibel level.
This brief moment of unity in Happy Valley was the perfect display of the detachment of the Penn State community from reality. In the last week alone, the number of boys that Jerry Sandusky allegedly raped has risen from eight to 20. As this number rises, we must remember that this is due in large part to the extreme level of importance that a community places on its football team.
In 1971, Marshall earned the right to a football program through their immense grief and persistent strength. Over the last few weeks, Penn State has lost the right to theirs.