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The town of State College, the home of Penn State University, has long been known as Happy Valley, and its iconic figure for more than 40 years was Joe Paterno, the head coach of the school's storied football team. His program was lauded for not only its success on the field but also its students' achievements in the classroom. And Paterno took on mythic national stature as "Saint Joe." But then, in November 2011, everything came crashing down. Longtime Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky was charged with 40 counts of child sex abuse, setting off a firestorm of accusations about who failed to protect the children of Happy Valley. Was Sandusky's abuse an "open secret" in the town? Did Coach Paterno and the Penn State administration value their football program more than the lives of Sandusky's victims? Filmed over the course of the year after Sandusky's arrest as key players in the scandal agreed to share their stories, Happy Valley deconstructs the story we think we know to uncover a much ... Written by
Sundance Film Festival
The Power of Myth and the Man Who Couldn't Live Up To It
Disclaimer: I have always had an appreciation for the Penn State football program. My mother was a Penn State fan (not an alumnus though), and she would always say that Joe Paterno represented class, while almost in the same breath denounce the legendary coach of my favorite college team, Barry Switzer as being anything but. Even though I am a loyal Sooners fan (though not an alumnus of OU, simply having been born in Oklahoma), I could appreciate what JoePa and Penn State stood for.
I couldn't help but think of that as I watched this documentary. In his lifetime Joe Paterno went from being a mere man into being a mythical one. It was one legend right after another, and I don't believe it matters who you are, if left unchecked, a person can buy into their own hype. I believe that happened with Joe Paterno, and it has left an impression on a program, a university, and a community struggling to make sense of it all. The whole truth may never fully be known.
From watching this I got the sense that Joe Paterno genuinely wanted to do the right thing. Having however the myth of "St. Joe", I believe he hindered himself from doing more because he couldn't believe a monster had gotten so close to him, and he couldn't live with what that would do to his perception. His son seemed to confirm as much as he stated both his parents were very well read, but naive about many other things surrounding them. Joe was too wrapped up in his own myth.
This documentary goes to great lengths to show how others have bought into the myth as well, and their support is as blind for him as it is deep. On the one hand they'll acknowledge what was done to the kids Jerry Sandusky was supposed to be helping was terrible. Just as quickly though they will try to absolve Paterno of any wrongdoing, saying he reported what he knew. In other words, the bare minimum. For a man that had built a reputation of going above and beyond the bare minimum, this seems to me, unacceptable. Yet they don't see it.
However, the lasting impression I got from watching this, and honestly I believe this was the point of the documentary, was that there is no prototypical child abuser, and that it is possible to dupe many into thinking one thing about you when something else may be the reality. That's a sobering thought for anyone.
The line that sums up this documentary for me though is quote "You should never build statues for guys who are still alive." True character is revealed when nobody else is looking. We may think we know someone, even if only by reputation. That reputation however may be little more than a house of cards ready to fall. In the end, regardless of what Joe Paterno knew or didn't know, what he reported or didn't report, the carefully crafted myth has come crashing down.
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