College football’s Nittany Lions won a thriller this past weekend, a tight game requiring multiple overtimes. I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania, in a region teeming with Penn State grads and Nittany Lions fans, and I befriended a few of the rare ones who tolerated someone who went to Notre Dame. After the PSU game this Saturday, my Facebook page was abuzz with Penn State pride. One friend wrote simply “We are…,” to demonstrate her team-pride. Discounting the possibility her typewriter broke before she finished the phrase, and ignoring the fact the slogan just may be appropriated from another college team and a film with Matthew McConaughey, there may be some inadvertent significance to the fact the phrase read simply “We are…” The missing words, “Penn State,” once stood for college football dominance as well as decent academics and a diversified alumni, but to many, the words have come to stand for institutional tolerance of child abuse and rape.
Jerry Sandusky’s activity have been described in great detail elsewhere, as has the school’s enabling of his crimes. (An irrelevant aside: Paterno was scapegoated, and I write that never having drawn a breath of admiration for Joe Paterno). That administration appears to have shown a breathtaking lack of regard for the welfare of its students and the horrors visited upon many young boys.
There’s still nothing wrong with remaining a Nittany Lions fan. Team pride seems to work itself into the DNA of many football fans, and to a Penn State grad, it may be too ingrained to be shed in just a few years. Many otherwise adoring fans have to reconcile their adoration for their team with their feelings of repugnance and betrayal caused by the institution they support. Being a fan still means being a person. Penn State is not the only institution that tests the limits of its fans. To illustrate that fact, let’s look at my own alma mater.
Notre Dame alum Melinda Henneberger wrote a December 2012 op-ed in the Washington Post explaining why she would no longer root for the Irish, even though they were (allegedly) National Championship contenders at the time. She reported the story of Lizzy Seeberg, a student of ND’s neighboring St. Mary’s College who reported that a Fighting Irish football player had raped her. Lizzy reported the rape to campus police, and soon found herself receiving text messages from friends of the accused warning her to keep her mouth shut, warning her “not to mess with Notre Dame football.” In the piece, Henneberger wrote that the alleged rapist, whom she did not name, had a history of similar activity which should have prevented him from even being recruited. Lizzy committed suicide ten days later, and then 5 days after her death, ND officials called in the alleged rapist for questioning. It took 6 months for a disciplinary hearing to be convened, after the national press coverage, and the player was found to be not guilty of any wrong-doing. Throughout the investigation, Henneberger wrote, the player never even sat out a game.
Henneberger reported that the Seeberg “message” was received by another female student who also alleged she was raped by a football player. She was taken to the hospital for a rape exam, and then she began to receive threatening text messages. The texts were reported to school officials, but after having seen what happened (and what didn’t happen) with Lizzy Seeberg, the student dropped it.
Whether or not the rape allegations were true (although any motive for inventing them escapes me), they certainly warranted serious attention by the school. To Henneberger, the ND response was late and possibly motivated more by public relations than concern for the welfare of students. She can’t get past the issue: the institutional cover-up of the sexual assaults have left her unable to don the blue and gold and cheer for “old Notre Dame.”
Sometimes to remain a devout fan, there has to be either rationalization or some suspension of disgust. When the Eagles signed Michael Vick, many Eagles fans as well as animal rights activists were appalled. It was bad enough he ran an illegal interstate dogfighting operation, but the stories of how he put down some of the dogs were horrifying. Now he’s the quarterback for the team I love, the team I watched with my Dad and the rest of my family every fall and winter Sunday. I still root for them every week. I don’t tell myself as many do that he paid his debt to society. I simply don’t express admiration for Vick. I want him to play well and beat the other team, but he can’t date any of my daughters and I won’t let him watch my pets when I’m traveling.
Back in 1997, Woody Allen, one of my childhood idols and one of the funniest men alive, married a young woman who was, in a sense, his daughter. He never adopted Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of Allen’s girlfriend, Mia Farrow, but he was around her from a very early age, he adopted some of her siblings and, until recently, he was thought to have sired a brother of hers. Woody Allen was in his 60’s when he married her: she was in her twenties. People still bring that up when I say I’m a Woody Allen fan, and my response is the same: he makes me laugh and he makes great movies. I don’t have to like him, just his movies.
Maybe that means simply turning off a part of my brain for a bit. Why do I do it? Our relationships with our teams may be “totally crazy, irrational and absurd, but we keep going through it because we need the eggs,” and if you don’t understand that quote, shame on you for having missed “Annie Hall.”