Sundance 2014 – “Happy Valley,” or: Confessions of a Lifelong Penn Stater

**This one was really hard to write**

Last night I had the opportunity to see Happy Valley, the documentary that is, ostensibly, about the scandal surrounding Jerry Sandusky, former assistant football coach at Penn State University. The campus and its college town, State College, are nestled in the Appalachian Mountains that run through central Pennsylvania in an area referred to as the titular “Happy Valley.”

And happy the valley was, for many years. Established as a land-grant school in 1885, it was primarily and agricultural school for decades.

Until Football.

Yes, the capital ‘F’ Football is intentional. Football beginning under Coach Rip Engle and continuing to unprecedented heights under Joe Paterno, brought national recognition to the university and its non-athletic endeavors, such as research.

The documentary concentrates its focus on those days in late 2011, when Jerry Sandusky was indicted by a grand jury for sexual abuse of at least 8 minor boys. In the days following that indictment, the Penn State Administration fired the President of the university and Football Coach Joe Paterno.

The remainder of the film examines the reaction of the Penn State community, students, and faculty through the lens of fall out of the Sandusky’s trial and the loss of Joe Paterno, both as University Icon and human being, following his death less than 3 months after his firing.

And now the disclaimer:

I am a Penn Stater. Those who know me already know this. I was born into the church of Penn State Football and baptized by the crisp fall air of the college football season in the nearby town of Bellefonte, only blocks away from the courthouse where the spectacle of Jerry Sandusky would finally play out. On good days, as my brothers and I were gathering up the neighborhood kids for a game of pick-up football, we could often hear the chants of “WE ARE…PENN STATE” ringing from the stadium and down the valley to our own imaginary Beaver Stadium 9 miles away.

It was as close to heaven as a child in that area could get. We truly did live in Happy Valley.

So, as an unabashed Penn Stater, I was somewhat gratified at the even-handedness with which director Amir Bar-Lev approaches the material in Happy Valley, being respectful of the victims without passing absolute judgment either way on Joe Paterno, who died of lung cancer before ever being able to present his side of the story.

Equally, Bar-Lev does not spare Sandusky, whose terrible acts no one has ever tried to defend. It seems to be the single point of agreement on all sides.

The remainder of the film, overall is dedicated to the evolution of the Penn State campus in the wake of the Sandusky trial, the hiring of Bill O’Brien, the Freeh report, and the nearly unjustifiable NCAA sanctions on the Penn State Football program.

To be clear, let me restate a few points that I have made in other places and discussions of this:

– No one ever debated that Sandusky’s actions were anything short of horrific.

– No one, given a moment’s reflection, would deny that Joe Paterno’s tenure as Football coach needed to end, given the circumstances.

– The manner in which the administration handled said ending of Joe Paterno’s career was woefully clumsy and unprofessional at best, and reactionary and panicked at worst. Those actions lead directly to the massive student blowback in the form of the “riot,” as the press called it, but was really more of a protest, as one student in the film identified it.

– The university’s blind acceptance of the Freeh report and its conclusions was ill-advised.

– The NCAA’s witch-hunt sanctions were completely uncalled-for, especially given its own assertion that the situation was not a reflection of the football program, but of the administration. To say “it’s not a football problem” and then proceeding to crush the football program made no sense at the time and makes no sense now.

For those that think I am an apologist, let me say a couple other things. First, I agree that Joe Paterno was finished after the grand jury findings came down. I do not argue the end, only the means.

Second, as soon as the announcement of his firing was announced, I told my wife that Joe would be dead in SIX MONTHS. Turns out I was a little too generous with my estimate.

For those that think all of the negative media attention was incredibly justified, let me say that I have always known, as have all Penn State fans and supporters, that the national media and the NCAA (and some within the Penn State hierarchy itself) had been waiting to find something with which to tear down the Penn State program and Joe Paterno specifically for years. Apparently graduating your student-athletes at a rate equal to more “non-athletic” schools like Stanford made other football powers look bad. I suppose that giving and raising money to help expand the university library was an affront to the dignity of the almighty NCAA. Rallying the entire student body and community around an annual CHARITY fund-raising effort (THON) isn’t something football coaches are supposed to do.

Don’t believe me? I moved from Happy Valley to a Houston suburb when I was 12. Football is bigger in Texas than it is at Penn State (it really is a religion in Texas). When people found out that I was a Penn State fan, they said that they “hate Joe Paterno.” They didn’t hate Penn State; they hated Joe Paterno.

The media finally got their wish with Jerry Sandusky’s crimes. Guilt by association. JoePa is no saint (he never claimed to be). They’re a fraud. Penn State must get the Death Penalty.

Blah, blah, blah.

I’m glad that Happy Valley got it mostly right. This was a complex situation, one that we will never know everything about except for one thing: Jerry Sandusky abused a lot of boys. He, like all pedophiles, was very good at hiding what he was doing. Did Joe do enough? Obviously not, but how many times on the news have we seen pedophiles get arrested and discover that their own families—people who LIVED WITH THEM—were blind to what was happening?

So, while it was very difficult for me to watch Happy Valley (you try watching everything good from your childhood get ripped apart on national television), I found the overall film to be very well done, and I recommend it for anyone who wants to see what a scandal can do to a community, anyone who loves college football (because you know you love your team as much as any Penn State fan does). And if you laugh at the depictions of students cheering for Joe Paterno, Bill O’Brien, or the players, think about what you do on Saturdays and how you talk to your friends about your team and coach.

Then shut up.

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