My friends hate me because I went to Penn State

Published July 27, 2012
Mark Emmert press conference

A few days ago, a friend was kind enough to dig up a heated Facebook discussion that emerged in the wake of the Sandusky charges in November. I’m sure you can guess how it went, because you went through many similar discussions yourself, but here’s a summary:

Friend: I would like for you to complete an analysis that details the risks associated with putting children under the care of a suspected child molester.

Ryan: The grand jury report does not allege that Penn State employees placed any child in the hands of a suspected child molestor.

Friend: You don’t trust people who have reason to lie. You assume that everyone who looks into things is incompetent.

Ryan: Nobody does that. Even you.

Friend: On what planet is “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy” not specific enough? Oh, that’s right, it was playful… Just sayin’.

Ryan: Maybe his boss lied to him, and said the police were investigating. Maybe Joe did call the police, who refused to investigate. Or maybe his boss told Joe “we’re not going to do anything. We’re just going to cover it up,” and Joe just shrugged his shoulders and went back to sleep. We don’t anything about Joe’s role after he told his boss, and to vilify him or anyone else for something we don’t know happened is ridiculous.

More people piled on, some of whom I didn’t even know. Most didn’t read the grand jury report, but they didn’t care. They had an opinion, and the harder I tried to convence them with reason and logic that we didn’t know all the facts, the more they branded me as a defender of child rapists.

After the Freeh report was released and the blowhards had a full day to talk about how awful Penn State is, my friend decided to continue the discussion that ended more than nine months ago.

Friend: Hey Ryan Bagwell, remember this thread?

Ryan: Calm down. Read the report. It’s not as black and white as they’re making it out to be.

Friend:  When the statue comes down, it will end up in Ryan’s living room.

Ryan: I think you have me confused with the Paterno worshipers.

Friend: If you stand by him even though he failed to scream his face off on this matter you’re a Paterno worshiper. A moderate one, not an extremist like the ones who lob stuff (which, by the way, I would love to see), but still a Paterno worshiper.

Ryan: okee dokee.

Friend: Hey! Does anybody remember that time when Joe Paterno did everything he possibly could to prevent children from being raped? No? Me neither.

Ryan: Excellent point.

I ended the discussion because I’ve learned over the last nine months that you can’t win these arguments. You’ve no doubt learned the same thing. The Sandusky story is so sordid that it’s just too easy to do what your raw emotions move you to do. To the the sports media, which specifically exists to serve up controversy and speculation, this saga is a dream come true.

But for Penn Staters everywhere, this nonstop national nightmare is different. So, to my closest friends, let me try to explain what it’s like to be us these days.

There’s a small, radical faction of alumni who refuse to believe Joe Paterno could have ever done anything wrong. There’s another group who agrees with most of the world – that he essentially raped 10 kids in the shower himself.

Then there’s the rest of us who comprise the vast majority of alumni that are having trouble reconciling how someone who earned so much trust from so many could have possibly done something so wrong. We don’t discount the case against Joe, but we don’t entirely believe it either. It just doesn’t make any sense, but you don’t know that, because you don’t know anything about Penn State or Paterno.

Imagine that your mother was accused of murdering a 3-year-old. She denied it. Being the woman that raised you and loved you for decades, you’d have a hard time believing that she’d be capable of something like that, no matter how strong the evidence was. To the public, as reported by the media, the prosecutor’s case would look rock solid. But to those closest to her, regardless of what the prosecutor said, it’d be harder to understand.

When she was charged, people across the country, on TV, in newspapers, and online, berated you for having the gall to defend the person you know better than everybody else.  You begged them to reserve judgement until key questions were answered. But the critics kept coming, telling you your mom was scum. Your friends piled on. Over and over again.

Then the trial came, and you were confronted with the truth. You know she’s guilty, but she’s still your mom, the person that raised you and loved you for decades. She’s part of who who are. And as hard as you try, you can’t disown her entirely.

That’s what it feels like to be a Penn Stater today.

Yeah, I know. Joe wasn’t my dad. He was a football coach that the world held up as a model citizen for generations. But he continued to espouse the same values that mom taught you. And you and I both believed him.

And I know Penn State isn’t my family. But it is part of my identity. I spent the first years of my adulthood there. And no matter how disgusted I am with the actions of a few, I can’t disown the place either.

I feel no reverence to Joe Paterno, nor do I worship Penn State football. True, I will admit to the adulterous action of watching football on 13 Saturdays each year. I’m also a season ticket holder, managing to make it to a game a year. But I’m not among those who’ve  “allowed (Penn State) to be celebrated mainly as a football factory,” as columnist Bob Molinaro of the Virginian-Pilot told me in a recent email.

But count among those who celebrate Penn State athletics as an academics factory. It cranks out graduates year after year. That’s what kept us behind Paterno in the face of his mediocre record over the last 10 years. The wins made us cheer, but Success with Honor made us truly proud. That hasn’t changed.

As if getting crapped on by you guys wasn’t bad enough, the NCAA, with permission from Penn State’s leaders, decided to drop one right on our faces. A big fine, loss of scholarships and no bowl appearnces for four years will probably cripple our program through the next decade.

But then forced its turd right down our throats: every win going back to 1998 would be vacated. That memorable 2005 game against Ohio State? No, we didn’t win it. The 2006 Orange Bowl? That trophy will be handed back to Florida State. The goal was to punish generations of Penn Staters, whether they had any connection to the football program or not.

To you, it was confirmation that your feelings about Penn State were right. We’re scum. Thank God the NCAA realized that and punished everyone who has even the most residual connection to Penn State.

But you and the NCAA are dead wrong. Nobody once put athletics above academics. In fact, as the NCAA declared that Penn State’s athletic culture “went horribly awry” and decided to subject it to an academic integrity monitor for 5 years, Penn State football ranked No. 1 in the annual academic bowl.

I’m sure the academic integrity monitor will be very pleased with what it finds.

The Freeh report is full of holes, based on anonymous interviews and circumstantial emails that were used to draw what Freeh called “reasonable conclusions.” You don’t know that, because you, like the NCAA, only read the conclusions.

So do me a favor. Get off your moral high horse, and leave the family alone while they we try to make sense of our collective, never-ending nightmare. You don’t get it, not because you can’t, but because you refuse to try.

  • Josh Stewart

    How come you didn’t include the complete story, namely this part: Nah, I wasn’t in Orlando. And clearly, what happened in Florida was inappropriate. And I have no problem with Penn State, Penn State alumni, Penn State student athletes, or Penn State Students, I have a problem with pedophiles and the people who idly stand by as they rape children. I can’t understand why anyone would support either a pedophile or their individual enablers.

  • Josh Stewart

    Also, the comments you included are from more than one person, so it’s more like Friend 1, Friend 2, etc. Which brings me to my second point – we’re all your friends, there’s no freaking way that we hate you. And if we did hate you, it’s solely because you’re beautiful.

  • John Klice

    I admire your idealism and steadfastness in the face of rhetorical adversity.