Monday, November 07, 2011

Penn State
As a Metaphor

Delbert McClinton Because I'm InstaPunk.

FOOTBALL. I'm not saying this is fair. I'm saying it's a metaphor for a lot of what I'm feeling right now. We all start from various points of local chauvinism, and we all have a bunch of those points, which entail multiple layers of personal experience, some of them almost too subtle to recognize. So this is an exercise in personal revelation. Make of it what you will.

I've been listening to WIP SportsTalk in Philadelphia all morning. The Philadelphia Eagles have a season-critical game with the Chicago Bears tonight, but the morning guys spent 80 percent of the time talking about Penn State. The mid-day guys took over at 10 am and promised all-Eagles, all show. Except that the only thing they and their callers have talked about for two and a quarter hours thus far is Penn State and Joe Paterno. It makes me prouder than usual of Philadelphia sports fans. What's happening in Happy Valley is far more important than what's happening tonight at the Link. Why is it so important? All the answers to this question are personal. Some -- hardly most -- of the callers are prepared to defend Joe Paterno to the last codicil and semicolon of his carefully crafted statement of non-responsibility. I'm not. Why I'm sharing my reasons for feeling the way I do. Some basic background...

I've probably been rooting for Penn State football for more than 40 years. When they were an independent (like Notre Dame, Army, Navy, and virtually no one else) building contending teams, they were the Boise State of their generation. The big-time traditional football factories automatically received more respect, and even some spectacular, high-profile bowl wins failed to earn them the national championship they once or twice seemed to deserve. They were the perpetual underdog whose discipline and focus, exemplified by their minimalist uniforms, made me admire them.

Importantly, though, that fan loyalty wasn't strictly geographical. I regarded Penn State as the heir to an older tradition that had been, to some extent, honorably abrogated. Which is a self-serving way of admitting that I was in those days the Ivy League snob I was raised to be. The majority of states have two large state universities, one called "The University of [Whoever]" and the other called "[Whoever] State University". Generally, in terms of prestige, the "University of" outranked "State" because the latter were subsequent land-grant creations designed to teach more technical disciplines than the liberal arts curricula of the older schools. That ranking still obtains to this day. The University of Michigan famously committed a public relations error in recent years by referring to Michigan State as "Little Brother." This differential has no greater degree of distinction in the nation than in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, where The University of Pennsylvania is an Ivy League institution founded by Benjamin Franklin, and Pennsylvania State University is an afterthought located in the hinterlands famous mostly for, well, football. 

Still, for the willing, there was an argument for Penn State as a species of guerrilla avenger. The University of Pennsylvania had been a national football power in its own right once upon a time, until it voluntarily deemphasized the game as a threat to its academic integrity with the formation in 1956 of a formal "Ivy League" conference that awarded no athletic scholarships and banned spring practice. I should also reveal that my paternal grandfather was a Penn graduate and his son was an alumnus of Penn's inveterate and still season-ending rival Cornell (the only university in the nation which can boast a 2-0 record against the Ohio State Buckeyes AND which voluntarily surrendered a national championship via an act of honorable sportsmanship.) There was a sense in which Penn State was picking up this fallen standard:

Penn's home stadium Franklin Field is not only the oldest stadium in football but holds many other records as well. It is the site of the oldest stadium scoreboard (1895), the "original horseshoe" (1903), the first college football radio broadcast (1922 on WIP-AM), the first double-decker football stadium (1925), the largest stadium in the country (1925 to 1926), the first college football television broadcast (1940 on KYW-TV) and the first FCS stadium to host ESPN's College Gameday (2002).

National Championships

Year Coach Record
1894 George Woodruff 12–0–0
1895 George Woodruff 14–0–0
1897 George Woodruff 15–0–0
1904 Carl "Cap" Williams 12–0–0
1907 Carl "Cap" Williams 11–1–0
1908 Sol Metzger 11–0–1
1924 Louis Young 9–1–1

Seven national championships beats Paterno's two (over how many years?), but the sense of continuity was reinforced for snobs like me by the fact that "Joe Pa" originally went to Ivy League Brown University and professed a devotion to the education and graduation of his players that contrasted sharply with other images of the time. As the son and grandson of three Ohio State Buckeyes, I can still remember seeing a dismaying parade of no-necked plug-uglies from Ohio State and Michigan in the 1970s announcing their majors as "Phys Ed" before various Big Games. It felt almost seditious to root for the Nittany Lions of Penn State.

So I liked Paterno for reasons other than those of the National Press, who heard his accent as blue collar. I thought he had higher values than his coaching peers. But my regard for Penn State, and Joe Pa, has deteriorated over the years, more and more of late. Here's why, In no particular order:

Gradually, the home of Penn State -- i.e., State College, PA -- has come to be called "Happy Valley." Wiki cites no source for this name. But there is a source, in Nairobi Kenya:

The Happy Valley set was a group of privileged British colonials living in the Happy Valley region of the Wanjohi Valley, near the Aberdare mountain range, in the colonies of Kenya and Uganda during the 1920s - 1940s. The elite social group became notorious for stories of drug use and promiscuous sexual encounters

The area around Naivasha, Kenya was one of the first to be settled by white people and one of the hunting grounds of the hedonistic Happy Valley set. The colonial town of Nyeri, Kenya, to the east of the Aberdare Range, was the center of Happy Valley settlers.

You may think it anomalous. But I had lived in Ohio. I had a straitlaced Roman Catholic (albeit union-loving MIT graduate) consulting partner there who warned me about the isolated towns like Lima and Findlay along our customary route to Detroit, where so much of our work lay and where I once came close to being stranded by a broken rental car. He said a few years back he'd had an assignment in Findlay, which has no neighbors for fifty miles in any direction, and he was shocked by the activities he was offered to participate in. Nairobi? Findlay? State College? No accounting for where affluent boredom will turn into something else.

I mean, you think rural locations in the middle of nowhere would be safe places to send your daughters to school, right? Traditional values, football the chief entertainment, yeah! Until I read about Penn State'sHappy Valley's Cuntfest.

Empowering to some, offensive to others, Cuntfest arrives at Penn State this Saturday.

The all-day festival, sponsored by Womyn's Concerns and the Feminist Majority Leadership Alliance, is inspired by Cunt: A Declaration of Independence, a book by Inga Muscio. Muscio feels the word, which once had positive connotations, should be reclaimed by women.

In her book, Muscio says 'cunt' stems from words that were either titles of respect for women, priestesses and witches, or derivatives of goddesses' names.

"Cunt originally started off as a good word," said Michelle Yates (junior-women's studies), who initiated the event. "And it got transformed into one of the worst words you can call a woman."

The word's negative connotation was not lost on Penn State Police Services, who received a number of complaints Wednesday about a Cuntfest banner on the Osmond building.

"It didn't take long for people to get offended by it," said Bruce Kline, assistant director of Penn State police.

The police removed the banner less than half an hour after Yates hung it, Yates said. Soon after, she told the police she had written permission to hang the banner, and they hung it back up within several hours.

"It was a mistake to take it down," Kline said.

Further explained by a student thus:

Our beloved mother tongue contains a certain number of words that are designated as "bad" or "obscene." One might wonder just how bad a word can be: picture it robbing convenience stores or dumping toxic waste into the watershed.

Like Harley mechanics, the bad words of English are a happy, useful group. Rich in Anglo-Saxon percussiveness, full both of definite meaning and allusive complexity, they are capable of turning vague everyday blah-blah into stuff that pisses off the elders.

If that was the intention of the Womyn's Concerns group at Penn State when they organized the Cunt Fest! and then the Sex Faire, they certainly succeeded. The first of these events was a feminist art fair; the second was an attempt to educate students about sexually transmitted diseases, rape, the concept of consent, and so on.

Now if you've ever tried to get the attention of college students off beer and basketball long enough to ponder something like feminism even for a moment, you will understand the marketing strategy of Womyn's Concerns, who wanted to make their events - in themselves fairly tame - sound sexy. They tried to wrap their informational content in the black leather of bad words so that people would show up.

State Representative John Lawless from Montgomery County, our very own Jesse Helms, was also provoked into attendance, and now demands that Governor Ridge suspend funding to the Penn State system. It is not perfectly clear how much in the way of taxpayer funds were used for these events, though it appears to be a fairly small amount; most of the money came from student fees.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger got hold of the story last week and lent her angelic contralto to the choiring whine of outrage. I think it's fair to say that, like Womyn's Concerns, Lawless and Schlessinger are pursuing the marketing strategy of provocation.

One thing we absolutely do not have to worry about is the defunding of Penn State; if Ridge tried that he'd be tarred, feathered, and run out to Cherry Hill on a rail. Indeed the deepest concrete risk is that we will be seeing Lawless continually on CNN and listening to Dr. Laura's weedeater voice into the indefinite future.

Perhaps the most controversial element of the Sex Faire was the "Tent of Consent" in which students who volunteered could disappear behind a curtain for two minutes of consensual, or perhaps merely conceptual, activity. I do not for a moment minimize what can happen in two minutes, but I suspect that there was more bashful aversion than orgiastic groping. Indeed this is a version of the pre-adolescent party game known as "seven minutes in heaven," which in my experience of parenting twelve-year-olds turns out to mean nothing at all.

College campuses such as Penn State University Park are themselves tents of consent, little spheres of post-adolescent experimentation, in which the wild temptations of freedom suggest themselves but internalized conservatism originating in the students' parents almost always wins out in the end. Future accountants fight ineffectually for the freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal; recovering high school cheerleaders pierce their noses. [boldface added]

As long as the nose's owner consents, what, we may ask, the heck? Or the f**k, for that matter? Soon these same people will be our state legislators, and then they and Lawless can be outraged together.

Which begins to seem much more ominous than semiotic feminism when you factor in Penn State's stratospheric ranking as a top 2011 party school.

Students in Happy Valley can raise a glass because they are being recognized for partying with the best of them.

Penn State is No. 2 on Playboy’s 2011 Top 10 Party Schools in North America.

Playboy Magazine got “input from students, fans of Playboy’s social media pages, alumni, feedback from Playboy campus representatives at schools across the country, and interviews with countless others,” they said.

Other factors like male-female ratios, winning sports teams (go Nittany Lions), proximity to the mountains, beaches and lively music scenes also played a role in picking the Top 10, Playboy said.

The only school that beat PSU on Playboy’s list was the University of Colorado at Boulder, which like Penn State boasts ski slopes, a great bar scene and a lively music scene.

But, Boulder doesn’t have JoePa or the Gingerbread Man or the Dark Horse or the Deli.

We are! Penn State!

Why am I making a big deal out of the doings at a mediocre state university that has never produced much? Penn State never belonged in the Big Ten. They have nothing like the record of graduates produced by Michigan, Wisconsin, Purdue, Northwestern, Illinois, Minnesota, or even Ohio State. And much as I hate to admit it, my old snobbery is rising to the surface. In the Ivies, only Princeton is consistently, permanently juvenile, holding class reunions for every class every year. Penn State is the public version of that neurosis.

My final point. I won't claim serendicity again, but I'll at least propose it. Lady Laird and I went to the Link earlier this year to cheer for the underdog Owls in the Penn State-Temple game. Before Lady Laird adopted Temple as one of her teams, I used to root for Penn State unless they were opposing my mother's Buckeyes. The missus even rooted for the Nittany Lions (secretly) against the Buckeyes. No more.

She still won't admit it, but she's been rooting against Penn State ever since. You see, the black players of Penn State are Nittany Lions, while all the players of Temple are ghetto monkeys who need to have racial imprecations shouted at them by drunken louts in "white-out" Penn State jerseys. Kewl? No.

Doesn't all this come together somehow? Is there such a thing as illiterate narcissism that can infect thousands of otherwise civilized people, so that the Nittany Nitwit identity of their half-assed consciousness blinds them to the simplest and deepest of moral responsibilities? I don't expect Princetonians to be anything but egotistical turds. But Penn Staters don't have the excuse of high board scores. And they really do have a responsibility to explain a cosmology in which Linebacker U. trumps human decency, geographic jingoism, sliver-like icons half-dead in an upstairs booth (God nodding off above it all?), and the obligation to cry rape when a child is, uh, raped.

Joe Paterno is a shit. He's let down everything. As an Ivy-Leaguer, he's just a dumb jock. As a coach, he''s a company man. As a generational example, he's an empty shell, a fake.

Which is where we've landed. There's no one left to admire. Why I'm so disgusted. Why we're (in my opinion today) doomed. The only person I admire anymore is my wife.

Apart from these electronic friendships, I have no respect for anybody. And no hope for us.

Because there's some Penn State in all of us.  The program is the program and I'll serve the program because the program is the program and Michelle tells me this is my legacy. Whether it kills you or not.

Isn't that where we are now? Everyone and everything corrupt? I just want to throw up. Me, I'm seeking the comparative Galahad-like purity of Ohio State players who traded championship rings for tattooes. Where can I get a tattoo that separates me from the countless whores who are destroying our nation?

Done, done, done.

But think of the red Terminator eye. It goes out. But then it reignites.

Wait. I'm sure it will reignite. Sometime.

P.S. I propose a pool. Pick a date and time when Joe Paterno will join Jim Tressel as a disgraced ex-coach. The prize for the winner is a (relevant) framed graphic from Shuteye Town 1999. (but only if we get ten entries or more... although you can enter more than once.)

Which one would you trust to look out for your grandchild?

I mean, yeah, I know, it's awful to think of. Tressel knowingly allowed several of his players to make as much as $250 on merchandise their university was making millions from. Whereas Joe Paterno is an icon in an upstairs booth on the verge of ascending straight to the right hand of the Football Father. Almost unearthly at this point. How dare we question him? Disgraceful times we live in, eh?

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