Review of Happy Valley

Happy Valley (2014). Directed by Amir Bar-Lev. Produced by Molly Thompson, Robert Debitetto, and David Mckillop. A&E Films and Asylum Entertainment Production. 98 minutes.

Reviewed by Lindsay Parks Pieper, Adam Berg, and Andrew D. Linden

In 2011, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury released information that Happy Valley Docdevastated Happy Valley. The findings alleged that former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky committed multiple sex crimes against young boys, suggested that the Penn State administration–including head coach Joe Paterno–covered up the horrific acts, and insinuated that the Penn State football community was complicit in the wrongdoings. People interpreted, reacted to, and labeled the Sandusky/Paterno/Penn State scandal (hereafter referred to as “the scandal”) in a variety of fashions. Most fixated on the evilness of Sandusky, while some questioned the ethics of Paterno and the administrators. Others blamed the power of football. Director Amir Bar-Lev explores these responses by observing the impact of the affair on the Penn State community. Happy Valley illustrates the aftermath of the the scandal, insinuating the complicity of the fans, highlighting the erasure of both the involved parties and the victims, and showcasing the town’s continued faith in football.

Just as those from Happy Valley responded to the scandal differently than those from outside the community, so too did we three reviewers approach the documentary from different backgrounds. Adam Berg experienced life in Happy Valley as a master’s and doctoral student, and was in residence in 2011; Andrew D. Linden came to Penn State for his doctoral degree, arriving on campus in 2012; and Lindsay Parks Pieper stepped foot on Penn State’s campus once—for an academic conference. We use our diverse perspectives to offer interpretations and analysis of the documentary.

Happy Valley

Mural

After the Grand Jury indictment, artist Michael Pilato painted Sandusky out of the mural. When Paterno died, Pilato added a halo over the coach’s head. Upon the release of the Freeh Report, Pilato removed the halo. Inspiration Mural, 2015. Courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

Happy Valley begins with the story of “JoePa.” Paterno assumed the reigns of the Penn State football program in 1966 and, for over half a century, guided the team to on-field success while simultaneously promoting character and leadership amongst his players. Paterno acquired divine status when he turned down a million-dollar offer to coach the New England Patriots. According to the film, the moment he rejected the Patriots in 1973 was the moment the Penn State Community cast him as “St. Joe” and his football program as the “beacon of integrity.” Moreover, as Sandusky’s adopted son Matt explains in the film, if Paterno was God, Sandusky was Jesus. “They could do what they wanted, and they could do no wrong,” he explains.

Matt’s words seem to ring true throughout the documentary. The most unnerving clip that illustrates this notion comes from old news footage. In the undated piece, the reporter describes Sandusky’s Second Mile, a nonprofit organization he founded that provided help for at-risk children. As an image of a shirtless Sandusky splashing in a pool with young boys appears on screen, the voiceover explains that “Jerry Sandusky seems happiest when he is mixing it up with his special kids. He may never have his own football team, but he already has something more.” He maintained inappropriate relationships with young boys for decades.

One year after the Grand Jury indicted Sandusky, a jury found him guilty of multiple counts of sexual abuse of children. As shown in Happy Valley, Penn State fans, waiting at the courthouse, erupted in cheers upon hearing the conviction. Their gladness dwindled when the Freeh Report, that became public weeks later, suggested that Paterno previously knew of the abuse. The rumors seemingly confirmed Penn State’s decision to fire him the previous year. Nevertheless, many Penn State fans maintained Paterno’s innocence. As former PSU student Tyler Estright explains, “[Paterno] was treated so badly. . . . How could they do this to him?” The idea that something was “done to” Paterno, as well as “done to” Happy Valley, surfaces frequently throughout the documentary. Happy Valley questions the role of the fans, illuminates the erasure of the scandal, underlines the silencing of the victims, and suggests that little has changed.

Adam Berg

In 2009, I graduated from Ithaca College, where football matters about as much as the PSU bowling team. I came to Penn State in the summer of 2010 to begin work toward a doctoral degree in the History and Philosophy of Sport. Little did I know that one of the most difficult and astounding controversies in sport history was about to unfold. I had (and have) little interest in Penn State football compared to many people in State College, though the scandal obviously intrigued me. I’ve attended about a dozen tailgates and a handful of games, including the one against Nebraska, right after the scandal broke and Paterno was fired. I’ve lived in Happy Valley for almost five years.

Happy Valley, the film, has no narrator. Instead the story is told through the often contradictory voices of its interviewees. The questions they are asked, the views they express, and the screen time they are given drive the narrative. I’m going to consider some of the interviewees’ responses to one particular question Bar-Lev chooses to pose. Was Penn State’s community and culture, in any way, complicit in or an enabler of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes?

PSU

Penn State vs. Ohio State, 2009. Wikimedia Commons.

After Joe Paterno, the second person to speak in the film is Paterno’s son (and assistant coach) Jay. For Jay Paterno, Penn State’s culture and community are innocent. As he puts it, “The national media . . .  cast a net over everybody. . .  They put us all in the same boat as ‘had to know, enabled this to happen’ . . . the truth is, there was no enabling of Jerry Sandusky. The truth is this is not a Penn State Issue.  It’s not a Joe Paterno issue. It’s a Jerry Sandusky issue.”

Following Jay, viewers hear an opposing stance from local lawyer Andrew Shubin. As he describes, “The community . . . felt like . . .  the justice system has punished the person that is responsible, and that’s enough.” Yet, Shubin cautiously continues, “I think that would be a dangerous lesson to take from this because I think it’s just the beginning of the story. I think it would be convenient but not appropriate to say Sandusky has been convicted, what else is there to do, let’s move on, it’s, you know – time for football.” Thus some people in the film appear more willing to move on, to return to football as usual, than others.

Joe Paterno, for one, implied (if not admitted) he made a huge mistake. As the film recounts, whether he actively covered up Sandusky’s crimes remains speculation. Nonetheless, Paterno at least exhibits the ability of remorse. As his biographer Joe Posnaski notes, Paterno wished he had “done more.”

Another Paterno son, Scott Paterno, also seems to recognize that something beyond the individual crimes was amiss. When the allegations against Sandusky first came to light, he says he came to the conclusion “almost immediately, dad had probably coached his last game.” As Scott put it, people were reading in the initial presentment that “Mike [McQeary] saw a kid get anally raped, told you [Joe Paterno] about it, and you [Joe Paterno] did not do anything more than tell these guys up the chain . . . The way that reads . . . it’s going to be a problem.”

Joe Paterno’s widow, Sue Paterno, also appears to have struggled with the possibility that “we” should have known better. “I had such a guilt trip,” she explains; “How did we never see any signs?” Perhaps her and her husband should have recognized the crimes being committed within their midsts. Sue quickly finds solace in the notion that a person like Sandusky really could have kept his actions concealed. Yet she at least voices a desire for proof in this regard, finding it in the “Paterno report,” authored by former FBI agent James Clemente. Still, Sue apparently once fostered some fears that her and her husband harbored some accountability.

On the other hand, Jay Paterno remains the epitome of denial. Disregarding the merit of any moral standards that are not legally binding, he asserts his father acted correctly: “He reported what he was told. The attorney general said that’s what the law directed him to do.” Jay, indeed, was ready to return to football. Unlike his brother Scott, he was surprised at his father’s firing. “Why would you do this to this team right now?” he recalls thinking. “We were eight and one, two games up in the Big Ten, we beat Nebraska and Ohio State and we are going to the Big Ten Championship Game, [with a] chance to go to the Rose Bowl, a lot of great things [were] going on for us.”

In the film, students and local residents follow Jay’s lead to the extreme. Students are shown turning over news vans and yelling out at the injustice of Joe Paterno’s firing. “Fuck the media,” “break the camera,” they utter. Fans of all ages tear up when “crippling” sanctions are levied against their beloved football team. Their attentions too are back on the gridiron, if they ever left it. Businesses continue to post “Proud to Support Penn State Football” on their front doors to attract customers. T-shirts and bumper stickers reading “409 Forever” and “Honor Joe” continue to sell.

Penn State support, 2015. Courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

Penn State support, 2015. Courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

Bar-Lev ultimately leaves it ambiguous whether or not Penn State’s “culture” at large deserves credit for enabling Sandusky’s wrongdoing. Happy Valley presents numerous accounts that see the community as blameworthy. Still, the filmmaker makes sure to step back and include voices that acknowledge that we don’t and won’t know exactly how something like the scandal could happen. It appears possible that, even without Penn State’s veneration of football, Sandusky’s horrible transgressions could have remained hidden.

According to the film, however, a large portion of the Penn State community does not have a comparable ability for self-reflection, wonder, or doubt. There appears to be a complete unwillingness on the part of many students and residents living in State College to even consider the prospect that they were complicit, that perhaps their love of Penn State football blinded them, that perhaps their behavior was (and is) a part of the problem.

It may be too much to claim definitively that Penn State’s “football culture” enabled Sandusky’s crimes. But it is not unfeasible. It is not outlandish to ponder if and how the beliefs, assumptions, and social practices that surrounded Penn State football for decades had something to do with making years of child rape possible in State College.

With this in mind, it’s not so much that the Penn State community created and permitted the culture that enabled the crime. What the film Happy Valley does so well is show how “football culture” at Penn State (and likely elsewhere) remains muddled with ethical shortcomings all by itself and fans couldn’t care less. After all, it took a serial child rapist to get many people to just start talking about the likelihood that numerous college communities care too much, spend too much, and sacrifice too much for football. And it is especially disturbing to think that even as such conversations got underway throughout the United States in 2011, it was a topic often unwelcomed in Happy Valley. The strength of this film is not simply that it points to a delusional and perhaps morally corrupt culture, but that it elucidates a community’s general inability to risk the implications of regret.  For even considering the chance that the community did something wrong is not worth the risk. Why risk having a reason to change? Why do such a thing when doing so could undermine the happiness that reverence to football provides?

Lindsay Parks Pieper

I was a graduate student at Ohio State when news of the scandal hit the airwaves. Having attended Virginia Tech for undergrad and OSU for grad school, I was familiar with the authority of football at big-time universities. Frank Beamer and the Hokies were iconic in Blacksburg, just as Jim Tressel and his sweater vest ruled supreme in Columbus. However, my experiences in Blacksburg and Columbus did not prepare me for what occurred in Happy Valley, nor for the responses of the Happy Valley community.

PSU Riot

Riots in downtown State College, 2011. Happy Valley.

The most striking component of the documentary, to me, was the shifting notion of victimization. Many of those interviewed insinuated that Paterno and Penn State were the victims of Sandusky’s actions. For example, when fans learned of Paterno’s dismissal, they took to the streets and rioted. Neither riots nor protests occurred in support of the abused children (the community did hold a candlelight vigil the night before a game). Supporters of JoePa demonstrated unrestrained furor, chanting profanities, flipping a media truck, and attempting to light its gas tank on fire. “I don’t think it was unwarranted,” said Estright, referencing the riot, which he explicitly labeled a protest. His sentiments and actions suggest Paterno, and thereby the football program, was wronged.

Later in the film, Estright expands upon this idea when he describes his annoyance at the constant reminder of the scandal. The Friday before the Nebraska game, the first without Joe Paterno at the helm, students organized a vigil. While some people “were really emotional about it,” Estright found it “fake.” “This is a Friday night before a football game, we should be getting ready to support the team,” he explains. “That’s what we do here in Happy Valley.” Furthermore, he found the joint Nebraska-Penn State prayer, which occurred prior to the coin-toss the next day, annoying. Estright argues:

This is great and all but stop praying in the middle of the field, get off your knees, stop holding the hands of the Nebraska guy, get on your own side, and let’s go play football.

Accordingly, demonstrating support for the actual victims marred the carefree, euphoric football experience.

The victims serve as a constant, uncomfortable reminder of the supremacy of football and the darker side of the sport. Penn State fans seemingly yearn for the previous state of ignorance that the scandal, and by extension the victims, destroyed. Again, Estright’s comments unintentionally speak to this point:

I understand what happened. I feel badly for all the victims and stuff. And I hate that. I hate how every time I have to share my opinion about Penn State football and what happened I have to say ‘I feel bad for the victims.’ No shit. That should just be, like, common sense for anyone.

It is much easier to silence the victims, shift the focus, and watch football.

Estright

Tyler Estright, Class of 2013. Happy Valley.

The filmmakers’ selection of interview subjects underlined this notion. Estright–a real life caricature of a Penn State fan, shown on screen with his Nittany Lions apparel, posters, and bed sheets–serves as the lone representative of Penn State students. Only showing one belligerent supporter is certainly a flaw of the documentary; however, the Paternos’ voices further illustrate the tendency to reshape the victimization. According to Jay, Scott, and Sue Paterno, JoePa’s legacy was unfairly tarnished. For example, Jay argues that “my father did the right thing,” noting that Paterno reported the abuse to the administration. Again, the actual victims and their horrific experiences were cast aside.

Surprisingly, Happy Valley is somewhat guilty of doing what it critiques. Bar-Lev interviewed one victim, Matt Sandusky, Jerry’s adopted son. Matt likely was the only individual willing to speak on camera as the other victims have (not surprisingly) remained anonymous. Consequently, his story–which some question–stands to represent all of the victims. The lack of subjects allows the film to focus on the community’s various responses to the scandal. While one of the issues Bar-Lev sets out to explore is the positioning of the victims in communal memory, those victimized by Sandusky are lost in both Happy Valley and Happy Valley. Instead, highlighting Paterno’s reputation and the power of football dominates.

Andrew D. Linden

As a graduate student at Ohio State at the time of the events depicted in Happy Valley, I came to Penn State as no stranger to the impact “football culture” has on a large university. I arrived at Penn State in the summer of 2012 to begin work toward a doctoral degree in sport history within the Department of Kinesiology. In one of my first few weeks here, while sitting in my backyard, I saw a small airplane fly over State College pulling a banner that read: “Take Down The Statue Or We Will.” This was in the days just after the release of the Freeh Report and just days before the decision to remove the Joe Paterno statue, which had sat on the grounds adjacent to the football stadium since 2001. As such, the Penn State that I have called home over the past three years has been a “post-Paterno world.”

PSU Statue

Joe Paterno statue, unveiled in 2001 and removed in 2012. Wikimedia Commons.

Along with questioning the complicity of the community and exploring the changing idea of who the victims were and are, Happy Valley also sheds light on Penn State’s attempts to erase the story of Sandusky, including many images of Joe Paterno on campus. In the documentary, sportswriter and Paterno biographer Joe Posnanski reflects on a trip to Penn State’s campus following the release of the Freeh Report and the removal of the statue. He explains how he had trouble even finding the spot of land where the Paterno statue had previously stood. Indeed, the statue had been removed, the landscape reshaped, and any traces of the fallen hero eliminated from the area adjacent to Beaver Stadium—a stadium that was once almost renamed after the former coach. While the university library remains partially named after Paterno (the other half is named after former Penn State professor Fred Lewis Pattee), traces of JoePa are hard to find on campus.

Off campus his image is omnipresent. Storefronts, apartment windows, and signs continue to “Honor Joe,” a large painted mural in the downtown area still has an artistic rendition of the former coach (the artist painted over Sandusky), and community-wide efforts to build another statue continue.

Paterno

Sign honoring Joe Paterno in downtown State College. Courtesy of Andrew D. Linden.

State College the city has remained a shrine to the former coach. It has come to represent the mentalities of many people in the area who do not want to forget Paterno, who want to remember him as the “beacon of integrity,” and who want him to remain a part of their own personal identity. On campus, however, the university hides his image. Perhaps, as an internationally recognized university, administrators have attempted to mask the strong and positive sentiments that remain for Paterno. It is as if there are two stories that the Penn State community is telling: one to itself, and one to the rest of the world.

While Paterno will probably never be forgotten, I am reminded of the erasure of the Sandusky story each semester. As part of my graduate studies, I assist in an undergraduate course on the socio-cultural dynamics of kinesiology. In this class, students work on a project in which we ask them to think critically about the incidents at Penn State over the past few years. Students have found this a worthy practice in critical analysis and self-reflection. Yet, one of the most interesting pieces of feedback we hear is that the project encouraged, or sometimes forced, them to learn about the story. Indeed, most of the students in this 100-level class were not in college in 2011-2012. They did not attend a Joe Paterno Penn State. Instead, they have been indoctrinated into the Bill O’Brien Penn State, or now the James Franklin Penn State, as the university has promoted these two individuals as leading figures in not only the culture of athletics at the school, but as leaders of the university at large.

With that being said, this “post-Paterno world” also sheds light on larger social issues. Although the documentary does not specifically argue that this is a bigger problem in the culture of major college sport in the United States–and  perhaps it should have–the ending of the documentary suggests that the Penn State culture has not really changed at all, shedding light on the large structural role of big-time football at many large universities in the United States.

To illustrate this point at Penn State, Bar-Lev closes Happy Valley with critical and powerful comments from Matt Jordan, a professor in Penn State’s College of Communications:

They have wanted to quickly replace a powerful symbol with another powerful symbol. You know. Long live the king, after the old king is dead. They’re effectively trying to reestablish faith in something. For a year and a half, people didn’t know what to do around here. The screaming crowd. What does it do with all that energy? It’s looking for the next symbol to attach all that energy to. And now, that there is one available, it’s like a magnet, it’s going to go there.

Perhaps supporters of Penn State and Penn State sports have just shifted its energy to a new symbol of athletic excellence. In the last few years, Penn State football has had successful seasons under coaches O’Brien and most recently Franklin. The PSU community quickly became attached to these coaches; some might say they quickly lionized the gridiron leaders. “O’Brien’s Lions” T-Shirts replaced many of the “JoePa” shirts in stores.  In the words of Jordan,

You would think that they would be less ready to anoint a new king after all that happened. We all want to think that we live in a better world than we do, so people avoid taking a deep look at something that’s troubling, and it’s pretty easy to do when there’s a big, shiny, loud spectacle. Spectacles draw the attention of people. It’s like a conjuror’s trick. When you create one that is so powerful that it brings everybody out of the woodwork once a week, what happens then is people aren’t looking around them. The rest of life is going on and they’re not paying attention.

Indeed, spectacle offers people a way out of “normal” life. It gives them the freedom to ignore other aspects of their lives and the broader social world. For Penn State football fans, and perhaps big-time college sports fans in general, it provides a way to escape, to put on rose-tinted glasses, and to feel better about themselves. As Joe Paterno himself says at the opening of Happy Valley, “having 100,000 people doing the same dumb thing” on a Saturday afternoon “makes you feel you’re not as dumb as you think you are.”

Lindsay Parks Pieper is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Lynchburg College. She can be reached at pieper.l@lynchburg.edu and can be followed on Twitter @LindsayPieper. Check out her website at www.lindsayparkspieper.com.

Adam Berg is a Ph.D. Candidate at Penn State University.  He can be reached at apb5152@psu.edu and followed on Twitter @adampberg.

Andrew D. Linden is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Pennsylvania State University. He is the co-editor of Sport in American History. Currently, he is the Student Member-at-Large on the Executive Board of the North American Society for Sport History. He can be reached at adl5182@psu.edu and can be followed on Twitter @AndrewDLinden. He maintains his own website at www.andrewdlinden.com.

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