By Dan Bernstein
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
It was intended to be a “moment of reflection” yesterday, during which 97,186 people could consider how their cult-like devotion to a football coach contributed to multiple violent crimes against children.
This was not a moment of “silence,” it’s important to note, since that would only have recalled the years of shameful inaction that allowed the predator in their midst to use the football program to help him rape boys.
The specific word from the PA announcer was well chosen, if largely ignored.
Reflection means just that – a point that was missed completely by too many in attendance and by the obtuse, dunderheaded television coverage. It’s not merely solemn rumination or sober consideration of Jerry Sandusky’s victims, but a call to look in a mirror and confront deeper, more difficult questions.
Instead, the day was notable for the powerful undercurrent of defiance, misunderstanding, and willful ignorance.
The symbolic ring around Beaver Stadium before the game was an honorable idea, but such gestures fall flat when fans all over are wearing t-shirts that describe their true feelings. Some chose damning the NCAA for daring to sanction them, others wore “409” to disregard the official forfeiture of Joe Paterno’s coaching wins.
Though the school-produced pregame video referred to “the next chapter,” there was still clear reluctance to let go of the tarnished, tortured past. Crowds lining the arrival route for the team buses chanted Paterno’s name, and makeshift shrines of flowers, bobble-head dolls, and hand-scrawled tributes were placed where a statue once stood, continuing to honor a man who never stopped choosing to let children suffer.
Ninety minutes before the game, an airplane flew overhead, trailing a banner that read “Oust Erickson/Trustees,” apparently for some unforgivable combination of firing Paterno, accepting the findings of the Freeh Report and agreeing to the NCAA penalties. Never mind that the alternative was a four-year suspension of the program.
A group of angry alumni took out ad space in the Centre Daily Times on Friday to print an open letter declaring that they would refuse to “move forward” unless the school acquiesced to a list of bizarre, unhinged demands. The letter insinuated that failure to do so would mean the undersigned would continue to act irrationally, as if that were somehow a threat.
Feeding the simmering angst was the presence of the Paterno family members perched hauntingly above, behind glass. History teaches that exiles of fallen monarchs must not be this messy, muddled and incomplete, lest rebellious urges be fed. As long as they loom, the hideousness enabled by that ruined name infects anything else.
And then there’s Franco Harris, a great player reduced to being the sad mascot for a doomed cause, now literally clinging to a cardboard cutout of his former coach. He’s the soldier lost in the jungle, unaware that the war has been long over.
It was said to be a day for a return to normalcy for the Penn State community, as they could settle back into well-worn comforts of tradition. Football was needed to begin their healing process, or so goes the accepted narrative.
That reasoning, of course, is fundamentally flawed, since blind worship of football created the very environment that allowed the evil to metastasize in State College in the first place. Nothing can be healed until there is a stark awareness of how it caused the hurt, and that continues to be lacking.
Happy Valley is in a big hurry to get back to its Happy Place where football makes everything OK, even though the rest of us know that’s just not necessarily true, after we’ve seen how it can go so wrong.
Before the ball was kicked and their incurable, unfortunate football addiction was once again fed, 97,186 fans were called upon by a godlike voice to “reflect” on months of sadness, and years of unspeakable horror.
They needed to open their eyes, and see themselves.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.
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