Transcript

451:

Back to Penn State
Transcript

Originally aired 11.18.2011

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/451

Prologue.

Ira Glass

So two years ago, we did an episode of our show from Penn State University. And one of our producers, Sarah Koenig, was in Paternoville. Paternoville is the tent village of students that springs up before every home football game there, not far from the statue of Joe Paterno, the coach, which is outside of Beaver Stadium. The students sleep out in the cold for a couple nights until the game so they get the best seats. This was right before they played Iowa State.

Male Student 1

Ladies and gentlemen in Paternoville! In 24 hours from now, we will already be up 40 points on Iowa! Hey [UNINTELLIGIBLE], what time is it? 10:43!

Students

And Michigan still sucks! Michigan-- [CROWD SINGS]

Ira Glass

This is just how much Penn State hates Michigan. They're not even playing Michigan the next day, and they still need to express how much they suck.

So after hanging out for a while with students who are telling her what football means to them, what Penn State means to them-- in both cases, a lot-- somebody asked Sarah--

Male Student 2

All right, so hang on, you've been firing questions. How are you feeling right Now you're sitting here around a bunch of drunk college kids.

Female Student 1

You're like overwhelmed and surprised at our answers, because you--

Sarah Koenig

I'm very surprised at how you genuinely enthusiastic you are about this school. I've never felt that way about any school-- what's surprising is that you guys aren't, like, cynical about the university at all. Like you're just into it.

Female Student 2

There's nothing to be cynical about. They deal with every situation perfectly.

Ira Glass

They deal with every situation perfectly. That's how it looked in 2009. This girl's friends immediately tease her-- well, maybe not every situation. But basically, they agree.

And if you know much about Penn State, you know why it is they feel that way. Coach Joe Paterno's grand experiment was to create a football program that would not only win games, the players would be the kind of students who take academics seriously. They'd be held accountable for going to class. "Success with honor" was its motto.

Back in 2009, when we did that show, I asked some students what made Penn State football special? And the answer was immediate, it was obvious.

Male Student 3

Joe Paterno. Joe Paterno is what brings a lot of the-- it's like we pride ourselves on the things that Joe Paterno preaches.

Male Student 4

Yeah, graduation rates is a big thing JoePa-- we have one of the highest-- I think we have the highest percent--

Male Student 3

82%--

Male Student 4

Highest in the Big Ten, definitely.

Ira Glass

They told me fans are supposed to keep a certain code of behavior toward their rivals. Players aren't allowed to gloat when they do well.

Male Student 4

Yeah, I'll never forget-- one of our players flipped into the end zone scoring a touchdown and got a 15-yard excessive celebration for that. Joe Paterno-- I mean, he's an old man, but he got down the sideline in that kid's face right away, saying, let's do sportsmanship. Exactly.

Ira Glass

This is a point of pride for them. Our sports program does things right.

And this, all of this? This is what went to hell in the last two weeks with the charges that former Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky sexually abused boys and Penn state officials knew. If you followed the news even a little bit, you've heard the charges from the grand jury's report. Most damning, Assistant Coach Mike McQueary says that back in 2002, he walked in on Sandusky in the locker room shower-- the grand jury report doesn't use the word "raping," but that's plainly what they're talking about-- raping a boy of about ten years old. McQueary then told Coach Paterno what he saw.

Paterno did not call the police, but testified that he instead told the head of the athletic program, Tim Curley, and Penn State administrator Gary Schultz. They did not go to the police either. Instead, they banned Sandusky from bringing children into the locker room. That was it.

Schultz testified that the university's president, Graham Spanier, approved that decision. Spanier, Schultz, and Curley had their own side of the story. They claim that they had not been told that Sandusky was actually having sex with a child. They didn't know that it went that far. The grand jury notes in its report that it did not find Tim Curley and Gary Schultz's testimony to be entirely credible.

At Penn State, all this news has been like a bomb going off. As you probably heard, students rioted. And then everybody regrouped and tried to figure out what to make of it all.

Today on our radio program, we're going to spend the hour at Penn State, try to capture what it feels like there right now. And it is pretty extreme. It really is like people's world has been turned upside down. For context, later in the hour, we're going to hear some excerpts from our original 2009 program about Penn State, which people have been Tweeting and emailing about in the last two weeks, because it gives a sense of just how intense the culture of football is at Penn State. You see why everybody's feelings are running so high.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

["WE ARE PENN STATE" CHANT]

Act One. Say It Ain't So, Joe.

Ira Glass

Act One. Say It Ain't So, Joe.

So our producer Sarah Koenig lives in State College, in the town that is the home of Penn State. And she says it has been a weird two weeks.

Sarah Koenig

Here's what it's like to live here right now. 100,000 people are having the same conversation at the same time, everywhere they go. I'm overhearing them in line at the coffee shop, at my son's Taekwondo class, in a neighbor's driveway, as people walk down the sidewalk, talking on their cell phones. The weekly newsletter from my kids' school began, "In light of the truly tragic events," et cetera.

And I'm having these conversations myself with everyone I know, and with many people I don't know. Like the guy behind the counter at Kinko's, who told me he didn't want to talk about it, and then we talked about it for 15 minutes. We can't stop. Because what happened here makes no sense.

Nancy Weinreb

I can almost see how it happened. Almost.

Sarah Koenig

This is Nancy Weinreb. She's lived here for more than 30 years, worked in the university library. Her husband is a professor of organic chemistry, and she knows all the higher-ups involved in this thing. Maybe not well, but just socially, or knows people who knows them. The Spaniers, the Curleys, the Schultzes, She knows Mrs. Schultz.

Nancy Weinreb

I really-- it's hard. It's hard to understand, though. It's hard to understand how the leadership-- I mean, very good people and good men could not do what they should have done.

Sarah Koenig

Because you do you think of them as good men.

Nancy Weinreb

Mmhm. I do.

Sarah Koenig

And do you still?

Nancy Weinreb

Well, I think they were terribly wrong. But yes, I guess I do. Yeah.

Sarah Koenig

Are you surprised to hear yourself say you still think of them as good men?

Nancy Weinreb

Yes. Yes, I am surprised to hear myself think that, yes.

Sarah Koenig

I've heard of a few people who compared this thing to 9/11, which seems melodramatic to me, but in one way, I do see the similarity. This feeling of the whole place suddenly seeming unreal, off its axis. Because how could good men turn out to be bad men? And obviously I don't mean Sandusky here. People have no ambivalence about Sandusky. The confusion is all about the guys around Sandusky, who appear to have let the alleged crimes go on.

I met Nancy Weinreb through her son, Michael Weinreb. Michael is a sportswriter. He wrote a book all about football in the 1980s, a large chunk of which is about Penn State, actually. And he's a columnist for this new online magazine called Grantland. He's been writing great columns since the story erupted two weeks ago. At least half a dozen people told me about them. They're circulating like crazy here. Because he's a local, and he's just as disoriented as we are.

In one of the columns, he wrote, "I can't add a lot to what's been written about the facts of the burgeoning scandal at Penn State, except to tell you how strange it feels to type the phrase 'burgeoning scandal at Penn State.' I know that I'm too emotionally attached to the situation to offer any kind of objective take, though I don't think I realized how emotionally attached I was until this occurred."

In another column, he tells a story his mom told him last weekend. Quote, "I think it explains as well as anything how jarring this is for a community that has never experienced such a complete and utter shock to its system. My mother's friends-- let us call them the Xes-- are cordial with Graham Spanier, the university president who lost his job a few days before. So last week, Mrs. X baked a coffee cake, got in her car, sweet-talked the security guard stationed in the Spaniers' driveway, and dropped it off at the front door. It was not meant to condone anything Spanier had done. It was merely a way of acknowledging-- well, honestly, I don't know what the hell it was meant to acknowledge, and the Xes didn't, either. But it's just something you do in small towns, isn't it?" Unquote.

I understand that. What do you do when a massive child rape scandal hits your town? So I called Michael up. We met last Friday at the giant vigil in front of Old Main, Penn State's admin building. Students organized it to recognize sex abuse victims. We talked about, what else, Penn State football.

Michael Weinreb

I mean, I do watch all the games. Like, we went on our honeymoon in Greece this year, and I found myself following the football game on my cell phone at 10 o'clock at night, feeling like an idiot for doing it. Sitting in a hotel lobby in Athens, and I'm following a football game on my cell phone.

Sarah Koenig

It was freezing. We walked to his friend Ryan's car. Michael lives in New York City now, and he'd come back here to go to Saturday's game, and to just be here, to see what it felt like to be back home. He grew up in town, went to Penn State, wrote for the school paper. And he's quick to issue the following disclaimer. He is fully aware that this whole ordeal isn't about him. It's about little kids who were hideously abused, and how it affected him personally, obviously, that does not matter one way or the other.

And yet, like so many people from State College, he's been deeply freaked out ever since he heard about this thing.

Michael Weinreb

It doesn't make any sense. It just doesn't compute. So that's a lot of what I was talking about my parents, too, is just how that part of it-- it just doesn't-- it just goes against everything that you thought you understood, you know? I just-- I don't know. I keep waking up every morning and thinking that it's a dream. It still doesn't seem real. I was expecting to come up here and it to feel different in some way, but it's still the same place, you know? Like I don't even know why I'm here, or what I'm supposed to be writing, or what I'm supposed to be doing at this point.

Sarah Koenig

We drove over to the football stadium to see if kids were camping out before the game at Paternoville. There was almost no one there. It was too cold. Just two tents were still up, and one had blown over backwards, like a helpless beetle.

The three of us, Michael, Ryan, and I, ended up talking until 1:30 in the morning. Like I said earlier, you just can't stop. For my part, I'm basically rubbernecking, upset and appalled by the crash. Michael, though, it's like he's in the pile-up. His memory is tangled up with this mess. With Paterno, with football. He's here to figure out if he can untangle it. He's worried his past, his childhood, might be contaminated by all this stuff.

Michael Weinreb

And so a lot of the good memories I have, you know, father-son stuff that-- I'm starting to sound like it's Field of Dreams or something all of a sudden. But I don't know how that stuff changes. I don't know if it changes, you know? When I think of, like, Penn State beating Nebraska in 1982, and like my dad lifting me on his shoulders, because I couldn't see anything, because everybody was standing up-- and then the last play of the game-- that was like one of the few times I've seen my dad actually shout and get excited about something.

But I don't know. I don't know how it will affect all that stuff. Because Joe Paterno is there. He was an integral part of all that stuff.

Sarah Koenig

I don't know if you noticed how easily he referenced that Penn State-Nebraska game from 1982. I heard Michael do this over and over. Football is how he marks time, an organizing principle for his life. He remembers watching the Sugar Bowl in 1979 in the family room when he was 6, and then going outside in the snow with his next door neighbor and replaying the game so Penn State would win. "To this day," he wrote one of his recent columns, "When I try to recall the combination of my gym locker, or a friend's birthday, or the license plate of my rental car, I think in terms of uniform numbers. It's not 31-17-03. It's Shane Conlan, Harry Hamilton, Chip La Barca."

Michael Weinreb

Penn State played Miami here, and they got killed. And I think that was the last game before September 11. For some reason, I just marked it-- I remember going to the first game, I think it was the first game after September 11, when they played Wisconsin.

Sarah Koenig

I find this a little crazy, and so does he, that he's bookended September 11 with Penn State football games. And he will, no doubt, mark this thing happening now with tomorrow's game against Nebraska.

Here's what he wrote in another column. "I do not believe Paterno deserves our sympathy right now, and in fact, I walked around State College this weekend supremely pissed off that he did not live up to the standards he would like us to believe he set for himself. And I was not alone in that sentiment. And yet when I saw those televised shots of his house on McKee Street, something caught in my throat. The conditioned response to a man I've been raised to believe is the moral arbiter of our community."

And of course, Michael's not alone in this. In State College, confusion has seeped into everyone's house. You can't believe it happened, or that it happened the way they're saying it happened in the grand jury report. There must be something we don't know, some key moment, some key insight, some key fact that will make it add up.

So thousands and thousands of people here, including me, are turning over theories. A former State College cop told me the other day, the football program is run like the mafia, and Paterno is the godfather. This cop had had suspicions about Sandusky for years, saw him hug a Little League kid a little too enthusiastically one time, and had seen him hanging around high school sports events, and had actually spoken to Sandusky about it, asked him, why exactly was he there? So this cop things Paterno and all the others around the football program must've known for a long time.

Paterno obviously has a lot of defenders, too, or at least people looking very hard for a reason not to condemn him. I met a football fan slash Penn State Law student named Chris who said he and all his friends in the law program are very skeptical of the grand jury report. Grand jury reports are supposed to be one-sided, he said, and there are so many inconsistencies.

Chris

It could be complete reversal. We may find out, hypothetically, that Tim Curley and Gary Schultz are telling the truth, and it's in fact Mike McQueary who is lying.

Sarah Koenig

And this woman, Lori, an alum and Paterno devotee who I met at the vigil last Friday-- she can't believe Paterno would have just let this go.

Lori

Maybe, maybe he was told that things were being followed up on, and he was under the impression that they were, but they weren't.

Sarah Koenig

I've heard people blame the cops for being in collusion with Penn State. I've heard cock-a-mamie theories, like people saying, this is all because the Pennsylvania AG wanted to take down Spanier, who fought publicly with the governor over funding earlier this year. The governor, who used to be the AG. I've heard that Paterno promoted Mike McQueary so he'd keep his mouth shut. A lawyer in town told me he blamed the lawyers, said Penn State's lawyers covered this whole thing up.

My friends Kim and Will moved here from Seattle about a decade ago. Our daughters are friends. Will's a bioengineer at Penn State.

Will

I'm one that embraces denial as much as the next person.

Sarah Koenig

Denial is a big theory here, too. Not just on an institutional level, on a personal level. That some combination of Paterno, Curley, Schultz, Spanier simply could not, or would not, believe such grotesque crimes were happening in their locker rooms.

Will

There are so many reasons to tell yourself that you're not exactly sure. So you're telling yourself you have to be so sure, and you're not 100% sure, and so, well, it wasn't exactly illegal, or I don't need to do this, I only need to go this far, or somebody else is going to do it, or maybe he didn't see what he thought he saw, and things like that. There's so much incentive to try to want it to not be true. And then you just kind of wish it away.

Sarah Koenig

The crux of the riddle for a lot of people is, did Mike McQueary really tell Joe Paterno and other university officials exactly what he's now saying he saw? That is, Jerry Sandusky in the shower, raping a boy who looked to be about ten years old? McQueary says there was no ambiguity about what he told them. They, of course, say that it was never clear to them the shower incident was of a, quote, "sexual nature."

So how do you square that? I've heard people say they believe that maybe McQueary didn't quite get the information out. There he is, sitting on the sofa across from Paterno, a football legend, his mentor, a 70-something-year-old man, a Catholic-- and is he really going to paint the picture? The shower, a little boy, ugh. Like one of my friends said, it could be that something got lost in the telling.

Kim of Kim and Will is a psychotherapist. She thinks Spanier, the university president, got all turned around in his decision-making, partly because of the closed circle he lived in, where administrators talk mostly to other administrators. Spanier has said he never knew about the sexual assaults. Spanier, by the way, is also a family therapist.

Sarah Koenig

Do you feel like, at the end of the day, he knew or he didn't know the particulars? Spanier?

Kim

I feel like he probably did. Yes, I do.

Sarah Koenig

Mmhm. Does that make him a bad guy? Like, how do you get your head around that?

Kim

Maybe from being basically kind of a politician, right, for such a long time? That he might have lost touch with some sort of boots-on-the-ground morals that the rest of us can live with? And he's dealing with large groups of people, and large sums of money, and I could imagine him confusing his duty to the university, and maybe even to the community, with his moral obligation to protect the innocent.

Sarah Koenig

My friend Eileen grew up about an hour and a half from Penn State, in farming country. Eileen used to live across the street from McQueary's wife and mother-in-law, and she believes McQueary. That he told the higher-ups exactly what he saw, and they buried it.

Eileen

In their world that kind of stuff didn't happen. And they couldn't deal with it. I mean, we were all having trouble dealing with the fact that it happened, and he was like a brother, I guess, in the football family, right? And so how can you deal with a family member doing something like that to kids?

Maybe what they said was, you know, it was one time-- they had a big boy meeting, and they sat him down, they had a sit-down, and they said you're not going to do this again, right? And he, of course, said, oh, yeah, yeah, no, not a thing, not an issue. And they used that to make themselves feel better, and for the greater good of all of Penn State. And I want to think they thought they were doing the right thing. I think JoePa did, right? That's a skewed vision, right? Of--

Sarah Koenig

Oh, you think they thought they were doing the right thing.

Eileen

I think, at least-- and I'm not giving them an out here. But yeah, I think in that twisted world, he thought it'll serve more kids, and it'll be for the greater good if we just make this go away so that the football program can keep on doing what it does. And I'm not a-- oh, god. I'm not a football person.

Sarah Koenig

Were you just nervous to say that on tape?

Eileen

Yes!

Sarah Koenig

Explain that. Why?

Eileen

Where do we live, right? I think that's part of this whole thing. Imagine if me, who does not give a [BLEEP] about it, right? Really has some hesitation in this town. And because of the people in my life, some of the people in my life-- yeah, right? And I didn't even realize that, Sarah. That was involuntary. Really. That's ridiculous. It would be like me saying to my sister, who lives in rural Pennsylvania, yeah, I don't really care about the Steelers. I would not be invited for Christmas.

Sarah Koenig

On Saturday morning, Michael Weinreb and his parents and some family friends met, like they always do, at the chemistry building where Michael's father works, and then made the trek over to the football game.

Michael Weinreb

Where did the chicken coops used to be?

Steven Weinreb

The chicken coops, we'll pass by where the chicken coops used to be. It's where, there are field hockey fields over there now.

Michael Weinreb

But you'd have to make this walk up there, and you'd have to walk by these awfully--

Steven Weinreb

Well, it would smell, was part of the problem.

Michael Weinreb

Terrible.

Sarah Koenig

This exchange about the chicken coops was the sum total of Michael's communication with his father on the walk over, by the way, which Michael said was typical. His father is not a huge talker.

We headed up to Beaver Stadium, and again, things were more or less the same as any football Saturday. It was a beautiful day, people everywhere, looking happy.

Michael Weinreb

It just feels so normal right now. And it's odd.

Sarah Koenig

Is that comforting to you, or is it just weird?

Michael Weinreb

It's just kind of weird. I feel like I should constantly be apologizing, you know?

Sarah Koenig

To whom?

Michael Weinreb

To everybody. I mean, to the victims, obviously, to people who saw that stuff on TV the other night. It's just like this woman holding up that sign. That's kind of how I feel. You know?

Sarah Koenig

What's the sign?

Michael Weinreb

It says, "To the victims, I apologize for Penn State."

Sarah Koenig

Michael shoved a dollar into a box. There was another student collecting money for a child abuse charity, and fans were just shovelling money at them, jamming bills in there.

So just to recap. This terrible story breaks open. People in State College are stunned. Then a couple days later, there's a riot-- a big, ugly retching of misplaced anger. And then two days after that, there's a vigil. A massive, solemn gathering that had the double benefit of calming the campus and looking good on the evening news. And then two days after that, there's a football game. And all of a sudden, that off-kilter feeling is gone. People are cheerful, excited. That's how it felt to me, anyway.

And it occurs to me that maybe that's what happened to Paterno and those guys in the administration back when they first got wind of Sandusky's alleged crimes. Just give it some space, squint into the sun, go to a football game, and you can kind of forget about it.

The following morning, on Sunday, Michael told me it did feel different inside the stadium-- more subdued. Even the cheering was subdued.

Michael Weinreb

It was just kind of quiet, even when it was loud. And it's like people were so tired of talking about the situation that they wanted to try to talk about the game, but then you start talking about the game, and you'd be like, how can we talk about the game? And then, you know, there was a moment in the fourth quarter where it was like, Penn State was down 17 to nothing, and they came back and made it 17-14, and then they got a defensive stop and got the ball back, and it was like-- I allowed myself like one moment where I kind of got excited, you know? It was kind of like, OK, I'm going to allow myself to get excited about football for two minutes here. Then they lost, and it was like, I don't care, you know? I didn't care that they lost, you know?

Sarah Koenig

Have you had that feeling before?

Michael Weinreb

Not quite like this, no. Yeah, see, that's the thing. I think a couple of my friends from college e-mailed me and they were like, I wish we would've won that, you know? And I was like, why? What difference does it make? It didn't matter. It just didn't matter.

Sarah Koenig

Did your parents have anything to say about it? Like that it felt different to them, or--

Michael Weinreb

Yeah, some guys in their row who were so drunk that they puked all over themselves. And I was like, that's weirdly like going to a funeral hammered, you know? It's like, just have some respect. First of all, it's a noon game. How do you get that drunk, you know? But--

Sarah Koenig

You know how you get that drunk. You start at 7:30.

Michael Weinreb

I know, I know. I've done that before, so I shouldn't say anything.

Sarah Koenig

Honestly, seeing drunk kids stumbling back from the game on Saturday, that was the one thing that made me feel like the town was going back to normal, for better or for worse.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig. Coming up, we go back in time, through the miracle of audio recording technology, before all this happened, before all the trouble, to the program that we did back in 2009 about Penn State. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

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Act Two. Tonight We're Gonna Party Like It's 2009.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. This week on our show we've been talking about Penn State and how people there are reacting to grand jury charges that a former assistant coach sexually abused young boys. The charge is that Penn State officials failed to report the abuse to authorities. In this half of the show, we're going to play excerpts from our 2009 episode about Penn State. That show is about mostly the fact that the school was named the nation's number one party school that year, so it's mostly about partying and drinking, which have nothing at all to do with this sex abuse scandal. Just need to get out in front of that right now.

But that said, you can't talk about partying and drinking at Penn State without talking about football. Football is a kind of a location where a lot of things like that occur. And though these stories are about drinking, throughout all the stories, there are these moments where you see just how central it is in the life of Penn State. You see the before in the before and after of this scandal.

And in the before-- and this explains a lot about the after-- people love Penn State, and the love was uncomplicated. Students were spontaneously telling all of us how much they loved the school, how they never wanted the college experience to end. They chanted the school chant, "We Are Penn State," not just in the football stadium. It was in the student union, it was in the shuttle bus. They would just chant it, out of the blue.

["WE ARE PENN STATE" CHANT]

They said "We are Penn State" in conversation, to make a point. They were part of this club that they were really excited to be part of.

In 2009, we were there for the last home game of the season, exactly two years and one week ago. Penn State was 44,000 students at the time. To describe the level of drinking and partying and football fandom, at one point in the show, I was joined in the studio, back in 2009, by Sarah Koenig, who you heard earlier in today's show.

Sarah Koenig

You're right. A couple of weeks before you guys came to State College, there was this huge freak snowstorm, and they had to cancel tailgating for the first time anyone could remember because the conditions were so dangerous by the field. But it didn't stop anyone. I saw people tailgating in their yards, on their front lawns-- even in my neighborhood, I went into a parking garage and found all these people on the fourth floor, which was really strange to see. I mean, it's a parking garage, so there's dirty cars everywhere, the ceiling is low, it's cold, it's dark.

At the end of one row of cars, there were these two tables pushed together in an L-shape with tablecloths and all kinds of food and a couple birthday cakes.

Sarah Koenig

Whose birthday is this?

Female Student 1

It's my birthday, it's my birthday, my 21st birthday.

Sarah Koenig

Happy birthday.

Female Student 1

Thank you.

Sarah Koenig

And what are you doing on the fourth floor of a parking garage?

Female Student 1

I'm getting drunk and tailgating.

Sarah Koenig

Describe your headgear there.

Female Student 1

It's a crown with a 21 that's on fire, and it says, "Where's the bar?"

Sarah Koenig

So who brought all this food?

Female Student 1

My mom and dad. Because they love me, and they're the best.

Sarah Koenig

About a half dozen older people were there, too, her parents and some of their friends. And there were a bunch of other tailgates happening around us, and one couple was having their 40th wedding anniversary.

Ira Glass

Wow. In the garage?

Sarah Koenig

In the garage, yeah. At one point, a woman probably in her 50s walked up and handed the birthday girl a red plastic cup.

Female Student 1

Aw, thank you! What is this?

Woman 1

[INAUDIBLE]

Female Student 1

Is there alcohol in it?

Woman 1

Most definitely.

Female Student 1

Oh my god, this is the strongest drink I've ever had in my life! They just brought me a really strong alcoholic lemonade.

Sarah Koenig

Is that your daughter? Are you the mom?

Woman 1

No, no. We're parked over there.

Sarah Koenig

You just saw that this is happening.

Woman 1

Yes.

Man 1

We've got to keep ourselves entertained somehow, right?

Sarah Koenig

Watch the 21-year-old get plastered, that's the entertainment?

Man 1

Exactly, exactly.

Female Student 1

Thank you so much for the drink!

Ira Glass

At tailgate parties you see just how deeply embedded drinking is in life at Penn State. It's entire families. It's several generations together. It's outdoor public drinking, which gives you this feeling when you're there that the whole world is drinking. Probably because there's so much of it.

In 2009, when we were there, Penn State had largest stadium in North America. Holds over 100,000 people. So the tailgates are these huge masses of humanity spread out as far as you can see, all around the stadium, starting at 8 in the morning, starting really early, which is when these alums got here. They talked to one of the producers, Aaron Scott.

Aaron Scott

So you went to bed, three or four. You got up, and you're drinking again.

Girls

Yes.

Aaron Scott

Is it ever too early to drink?

Girls

No, never.

Ira Glass

Eight in the morning means, by the way, that if it's a night game, they will tailgate for 12 hours, in the cold, in the freezing cold sometimes, before kickoff.

Sarah Koenig

I talked to a bunch of alums at a tailgate about what would happen if they weren't allowed to drink it all.

Mark Johnson

I think there would be a revolt. I think there would be a huge, huge pushback from the alumni that donate a lot of money to school to say that you can't have alcohol to tailgate.

Sarah Koenig

That's Mark Johnson, class of 1977.

Mark Johnson

It's just part of the culture. I mean, that's why this school sells 110,000 tickets for every-- just, it's a part of it. It's just part of that tradition.

Ira Glass

Usually pounding down drinks at eight in the morning can be kind of sad. But the main thing about this kind of drinking, where it's tied in with tradition, and football, and family, and overwhelming sense of school spirit, is that it feels incredibly wholesome. The whole campus feels like a Chevy commercial. It's welcoming people. It's friendly. It's hard to resist.

Megan Klock

You could go to any tailgate here, any Penn State tailgate, and you are just welcome.

Ira Glass

Here's a junior named Megan Klock.

Megan Klock

I mean, you could go up to someone that's cooking at a grill, and be like, hey, can I have a burger? And they're like, oh, sure. So it's like endless food. Everyone's friendly with everyone. Just the atmosphere here is-- I have never experienced anything like Penn State atmosphere.

Ira Glass

Sarah met this next guy, Peter, drinking outside the stadium with his friends before the game. He's from Slovakia.

Peter

I came to US, and I started watching baseball and football, and I didn't understand at all the rules. It was just a big blah to me. And I didn't get my football tickets my freshman year, but I was able to go in one or two games. And I guess I started to like the atmosphere that is surrounded by the football. And it kind of reminded me of home, where everyone is welcoming, everyone's a big family, and no matter where you're from, you root for the same team. It made me feel like I'm home again and surrounded by friends. And so I just love it now. I heart [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. I'm getting emotional.

Ira Glass

This sense-- that we're a family, we're about football, everybody in the school is one-- it spills over from the football games into the whole weekend. It's a week, actually.

It's Friday night, the night before the football game, outside East Hall, one of the big freshmen dorms. And dozens of kids are lined up to the free shuttle buses that are going to take them across campus to the frats and parties on the other side. Two of our producers, Jane Feltes and Lisa Pollak, noticed that all the girls wore these ratty-looking hoodies and jackets over their dress-up clothes. Somebody told them that word for this is "frackets." They went up to some girls to confirm that.

Lisa Pollak

Have you guys heard of something called frackets?

Female Student 2

Oh yeah, that's what we're wearing.

Female Student 3

Oh, we have a pro in frackets.

Female Student 4

A fracket, by definition, is a jacket made for frats. It's basically a crappy jacket that's cheap and you don't care about.

Female Student 2

Yeah. Because they get lost. They get, like, puked on. You don't want that back.

Female Student 5

You don't want it back. Just lose it, yeah.

Ira Glass

Jane rode on the bus with the freshmen. She joins me now.

Jane Feltes

So that girl, her name's Chuy, she's from Saudi Arabia. When I met her and her friend Megna, they were already on their second loop around campus. They were kind of drunk and they'd missed their stop the first time. And on this bus, everyone keeps breaking into song.

[STUDENTS SINGING]

Jane Feltes

What is happening?

Female Student 2

This is the drunk bus. Good timing.

Female Student 5

Oh my god. Is this the same stop where we found out that we were late?

Ira Glass

Penn State's administration does a pretty thorough job surveying students to track how much they're drinking. Surveys show that every Friday and every Saturday night, 75% of the school drinks. That's over 30,000 people, an average of four and half drinks per person. And the students drink those drinks in about three hours, average. To put those numbers in perspective, binge drinking, or as it's been rebranded lately, high-risk or dangerous drinking, is defined as four drinks for a woman or five drinks for a man consumed in just two hours.

[STUDENTS SINGING]

And to get down into the details of Penn State's numbers, it works out to over half the students regularly binge drinking, which is just a little bit above the national average for college students.

[STUDENTS SINGING]

Lots of students said something that was hard to argue with. When else are also they going to get a chance to do this? Like I was talking to a senior--

Ira Glass

So what's the wildest thing you've seen at a party at this school?

Male Student 5

Wildest thing at a party? Somebody streaking completely naked, and pretending to throw monkey feces as they were doing it. And that was me.

Ira Glass

That was you?

Male Student 5

That was me.

Ira Glass

When was that?

Male Student 5

Last week. I mean, you can only do that stuff now, when you're in college, you know? You can't do it-- I wouldn't be able to do it six months from now. It's college.

Ira Glass

Yes, there's a downside to all this. In the surveys of students done by the school, a fourth of Penn State students say that drinking has caused them to miss class or get behind on the schoolwork. 15% say that they've been pushed, hit, or assaulted. 7% say that drinking led to what the survey called-- this is their euphemism-- quote, "an unwanted sexual experience." There actually isn't data at Penn State linking drinking and date rape. 6% said that they'd gotten into what you would call a real physical fight. And then there are crimes that you never hear of unless you live in a place like State College.

Nina White

Our daughter came into the kitchen while we were in the midst of hurriedly getting everything done, and said something to the effect of, mommy, I want to play my room. Can you please get that man out of my bed? And I remember having said something to the effect-- there's no man in your bed. And she actually went away, and came back a few minutes later, so I guess she went up to check. And she comes down--there is a man in my bed, and I want to play in my room. Would you please get him out of there?

Ira Glass

This is a long-time State College resident named Nina White, and the man on the bed, of course, was a college student who committed a surprisingly common crime in this town. He came to her house drunk, found a comfortable place, and fell asleep.

When we were at Penn State in 2009, it was the neighbors who had the biggest concerns about all the drinking because of incidents like this. And there was one of the neighbors in particular who got us interested in in all the partying as something to report on. That neighbor was our colleague, This American Life producer Sarah Koenig, who, as I said, lives in State College. Lives there because her husband teaches at the school. And the episode that we did in 2009 began with us sitting on the porch.

Ira Glass

One, two, three. OK, Sarah, so it's ten of one on a Friday night in November, and we're sitting on your porch. And it seems pretty quiet.

Sarah Koenig

It's not that bad.

Ira Glass

By day, I have to say, Sarah's neighborhood is like a college town that you would see in an old Hollywood film. It's beautiful professors' homes, built in the '20s and '30s, it's tree-lined streets, it's gardens. But by night, we'd been on that porch for five minutes when--

Sarah Koenig

They seem drunk. These kids seem drunk. This couple here, they're sort of staggering a bit. I think he's like holding her up or something.

Ira Glass

It's nine students walking down the middle of the street. Happens all the time.

Sarah Koenig

It's noisy, right? It's like it doesn't occur to them at all, I think, that there are people in these houses trying to sleep. And I kind of remember being that way in college, too, actually.

Ira Glass

Yeah, I do too.

Six minutes later, there's another group of drunk students. One tosses something onto a lawn.

Sarah Koenig

Can you guys pick up your trash, please? Can you pick up your plate, your pizza plate? Please? People leave here. They pay no attention.

Ira Glass

Five minutes after that, we hear this clattering from the alley that runs next to Sarah's house.

Sarah Koenig

Whoa, what was that? Actually, I'd kind of like to know what that was. What's going on?

Ira Glass

We run down the alley, and two college boys run away as they see us coming. "Don't go back there, you could get raped," they yell to Sarah.

Sarah Koenig

See? OK. They just threw somebody's trash can, or like dropkicked it up in the air.

Ira Glass

12 minutes after that, from the other direction, we hear a scraping, and a loud rumbling, I guess.

Sarah Koenig

That's somebody's property. That might have been a sign, actually.

Ira Glass

I don't know how many street signs you need to hear dragged through your neighborhood before you could recognize the sound it makes from all the way around the corner. But apparently my colleague Sarah has seen whatever that number is. We go to investigate and find two guys.

Ira Glass

So just describe what you've got here.

Male Student 6

A stop sign. Nice big pole on it.

Sarah Koenig

A stop sign. That's kind of a big thing when you see it up close, isn't it?

Male Student 6

Sorry.

Sarah Koenig

Where did you find this? Like, where does it belong?

Male Student 6

I don't know.

Male Student 7

That is a good question.

Male Student 6

We just found it on a lawn. We found it on a lawn.

Male Student 7

It was already ripped up.

Male Student 6

Yeah, it was already [BLEEP] on someone's lawn.

Male Student 7

We just decided, hey, why not make use of and take it?

Ira Glass

Of course, this story makes no sense at all. I inform the two guys that I don't need to know their names.

Male Student 7

Well, in that case, we took it from the corner right there.

Sarah Koenig

Which one?

Male Student 7

Where that car just turned.

Ira Glass

Pulled it out of the ground?

Male Student 7

Yeah, it was cemented in pretty well. Just get a little rocking back and forth between two people, comes right out.

Ira Glass

Did you guys come from like a house party somewhere?

Male Student 7

Ah, no. We were just hanging out with a bunch of friends, just drinking. Taking some shots.

Ira Glass

Seems like kind of an academic distinction to me, but.

With that, the other guy starts running with the street sign toward Garner Street, which is hard because it's attached to a seven-foot metal pole, and it's heavy. Sarah and I go back around the corner to her front yard. The evening is not over at all. Just in time to spot another student, this one coming out of her garden, Sarah assumes, from the bushes back there.

Male Student 8

I didn't pee.

Sarah Koenig

Really?

Male Student 8

I never pee.

Sarah Koenig

Really?

Male Student 8

I was just sitting down.

Ira Glass

He goes, and it's not a minute later that Sarah points towards the alley where there are three girls in miniskirts, under streetlights, fully visible.

Sarah Koenig

Peeing, peeing, peeing, peeing, peeing.

Ira Glass

One girl hikes up her skirt.

Ira Glass

Wait, step back, step back, step back.

Sarah Koenig

OK. But they're peeing in my yard. They're peeing in my yard. That's my car, OK, and three feet back is a girl's white ass, peeing.

She saw we saw her. She stopped. You know, that might be why the plants grow really, really well in that spot. I'm just realizing.

Ira Glass

Sarah's caught other groups of girls peeing in that same spot. Once she heard a girl say, "This is a good place. I go here all the time."

Sarah Koenig

They're so embarrassed. There's like muffled giggling happening across the street.

Ira Glass

The weekend that we recorded this, back in 2009, Penn State was in fact the country's number one party school, named by people who name the number one party school in our country, the Princeton Review. And this is apparently what it means to be the number one party school in the country. From the moment that Sarah and I turned on the tape recorder to the moment that she sent those girls looking for somebody else's yard to pee in-- total time, 34 minutes. It's 1:30 in the morning now.

Sarah Koenig

The fact that we saw that much mayhem sort of going on at one corner-- so that means it's, multiply that by this entire neighborhood and other neighborhoods around. People are peeing everywhere, garbage cans are getting kicked, stop signs are getting pulled out of the road, people are littering-- you know.

Ira Glass

The Princeton Review chooses the number one party school from online student surveys. 120,000 students at 371 schools around the country answered these questions. How widely used are beer, alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs or your school? How big is frat life at your school? And finally, how many hours do you study each day? The students aren't randomly selected, so it's not, strictly speaking, a scientific survey. But every year, Penn State ranks very high. In the last five years, it's been the number three party school twice. It's been the number seven party school in the country, it's been the number nine party school in the country, and of course, number one party school in 2009 the year we were there.

That year, a freshman named Joe Dado died in an alcohol-related incident in September, just a month into the school year. He was 18. In the episode that we did back then, Sarah Koenig did a big story about the university's response to this incident and to the level of alcohol consumption at the school in general. When these kinds of deaths have happened at other schools-- Colorado State, MIT, Indiana University, UVA-- administrations have used the deaths to push for change. Not at Penn State. Nobody used the occasion to urge the students to stop drinking so much. Instead, the message from the administration was, if you're going to get plastered, do it more responsibly.

As we noted at the time, maybe the administration figured that this message had a better chance of sticking. And it did stick. The lesson students took-- we heard this from students that we talked to-- was not the Dado drank too much, but that he would have been alive if only he hadn't gone off by himself.

Sarah talked in the show about how the University's president, Graham Spanier, came in 15 years before that as a crusader against binge drinking who was not shy about calling alcohol use the school's biggest problem, and he got pushback for that. From alumni, from university trustees. He was booed by students at a football game. And he stopped hammering the topic so publicly.

Here's from that story that Sarah did back in 2009. You hear, she actually goes to Spanier. And here's Spanier in this clip. He was fired last week after the child sex abuse scandal broke.

Sarah Koenig

What you hear all the time around here, off the record, from local residents, from faculty, from other administrators, is that Spanier really can't or won't do anything more draconian about the drinking problem here-- make fraternities dry, say, or curb tailgating-- because politically, he simply cannot risk alienating those sacred cows Simms is talking about. Especially alumni and athletics, meaning football, which brings in enormous money.

Tens of thousands of alumni come to football games, rent skyboxes. The only places in the stadium where you can drink, by the way. They arrange their lives around the season. It's a big part of why they give money to the school. Last year, alums and other donors give $182 million.

I asked Spanier if there was something he needed to be careful about here, in terms of the connection between football and donors and booze.

Graham Spanier

No. I don't buy that at all. That's just speculation that you hear from people, like, oh, that must be part of the issue. They would never go after the alumni. The fact is, what happens with six or seven home games is not the heart of this issue here. We're talking about the weekend in, weekend out, every day of the week throughout the year kind of issue.

Sarah Koenig

When this comes up, it's sort of like, someone will say, well, why don't they just make tailgating dry? No alcohol on University property? Is that kind of thing ever even brought up as like a, we just want to signal a culture change, we're just going to make a big bold move and say, we're going to become a different kind of school now. Is that ever, like, on the table?

Graham Spanier

No, I don't think so. I can't envision telling alumni of legal age that they can't drink on a football weekend, and seeing that that's going to change the problem of alcohol consumption among underage students on college campuses. I don't think those two things are really tied together.

Ira Glass

How far would administrators go to protect the football program? Of course, that's at the heart of the current scandal. And with football so central to Penn State's fundraising, it's easy to see why they would protect it.

A Penn State professor named Michael Berube wrote an op-ed in the New York Times this week about how football built Penn State into the school it is today. He talks about how dramatically the school has improved since Coach Joe Paterno first arrived decades ago, how Paterno endowed the professorship he holds, and lists the academic departments at Penn State-- English, Sociology, Anthropology-- that are now rated among the top ten university programs by the National Research Council. He notes that after Joe Paterno's first national championship, Paterno declared that the school had to improve its library, because quote, "You can't have a great university without a great library." Paterno and his wife led the capital campaign. The new library building is named for them.

When Penn State football has a winning season, enrollment goes up. Somebody who's tried to quantify just what football means to Penn State financially is Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, whose 2000 series on the business of football at Penn State was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. I reached him in State College this week, where he was writing a story about the current scandal.

Frank Fitzpatrick

You know, without football it's hard to imagine what this place would look like. Football has really been the engine driving the growth here.

Ira Glass

How much money does Penn State football bring in?

Frank Fitzpatrick

Well, I believe in 2010, they brought in, I think it was $72 million. They had costs of, I believe, $19 million. So that's a profit of $53 million, which is a profit margin that most Fortune 500 companies would be envious of.

Ira Glass

What happens at $53 million profit? Where does it go?

Frank Fitzpatrick

Well, it goes to fund the other 28 or 29 teams here at Penn State. The entire cost of these teams is carried by the revenue that the football team generates. Penn State is fortunate in that they're able to raise enough money to support athletics. At most schools in this country, they run an annual average deficit of maybe $8 million to $10 million a year.

Ira Glass

You were saying that $53 million is the profit in a year from football at Penn State. How does that compare to Penn State budget? Like, is that a big chunk of it?

Frank Fitzpatrick

Their overall budget for the school is probably like $4 billion.

Ira Glass

It just doesn't seem like that much. Like, it doesn't seem like it would have that much influence.

Frank Fitzpatrick

Well, what you've got to remember is that football and Joe Paterno are the face of this university. I mean, that's the marketing of your university. And you go around campus and look at the names of the buildings and the people that have donated money here, and they're either ex-football players, people who have somehow been associated with Joe over the years. So I mean, if you don't have a successful football team, if you don't have a team that's generating revenue and victories, you're quickly going to find yourself with decreased admissions, with lower contributions.

Ira Glass

You think it's going to affect the school's finances that this has happened?

Frank Fitzpatrick

I think that's the great fear. I mean, the fear is that if Penn State's image, the image they've sold to these donors and contributors all the years is this squeaky-clean image. And if that's tarnished, that's a lot of potential donations. I was just going back on some of my research I did when I was doing the series of stories about Penn State, and there were quite a few donors who at that time, said, when they had no inkling that anything like this was in the wind, said I'm more than happy to give my money to Penn State, because they do things the right way. If that ever changes, I'll have to make an assessment at that time.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait. They said if that ever changes, I think I'll have to look at it? People actually went that far?

Frank Fitzpatrick

Yeah. I mean, because at that time, and for quite a while, people were wondering what this place is going to look like when Joe leaves. You know, Joe's sort of been the guy that's propped up this image. So you can imagine that that assessment is being made by hundreds of different people, even as we speak. Do I continue to give my money to Penn State, or do I want my name associated with something so sordid as this?

Ira Glass

Frank Fitzpatrick of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Here is one more thing about how the fate of the football team affects everything in this town. This is another clip from our 2009 show. Nancy Updike, for that show, did this story about the local businesses at Penn State, in the town of State College. The week that we were there, nearly every business owner told us that their businesses were significantly down because of the football team. Because of Penn State's loss to Ohio State the week before. Anyway, this is from her story.

Nancy Updike

This is McLanahan's, a sprawling Hearst Castle of a store. It's your basic drugstore, deli produce market, hardware, underwear, beer pong, stationary, grocery, Penn State merchandise emporium, which over the years has acquired and absorbed the stores that used to be next to it, to the point where it's bought up everything it can, and the only way left to expand is to cram more stuff everywhere. And there's always something clamoring for more space.

McLanahan's owner Ray Agostinelli says that over and over again, he's had to stock way up on some usually sleepy object that has suddenly become a crazy hot seller.

Ray Agostinelli

Well, it happened one time with marshmallows, and all of a sudden, all the marshmallows were gone. And here, what it was, was that they'd take them to the football games, and they were throwing marshmallows.

Nancy Updike

You said people were throwing marshmallows onto the field?

Ray Agostinelli

Oh yeah, if they did-- They were? Getting pretty dangerous with them. This wasn't too good. And they got outlawed. But the kids would come in and buy all the marshmallows, and we said, wait a minute. We never sold that many marshmallows. What? But it's just whatever the crazes are, you have to keep up with and be there.

Nancy Updike

And then there are the crazes that never go away. Sex. One of McLanahan's many frank and nonjudgmental offerings is its display, right up front, that is condoms on top, lubricant in the middle, pregnancy tests on the bottom.

Ray takes me into the two Penn State merchandise sections of the store. It's a full sensory experience. That's a CD of the school's band in the background. There are seven different kinds of car air fresheners with the Penn State logo, pacifiers, a steering wheel cover.

Nancy Updike

Ray, are you ever amazed at something you never knew that Penn State logo could be put on it? I just saw a remote control, a TV remote--

Ray Agostinelli

You put it on here and it'll sell. You put it on your microphone, it'll sell.

Nancy Updike

In the almost 50 years Ray has been working at McLanahan's-- he bought it from Bob McLanahan 40 years ago-- Ray has seen the Penn State merchandise in his store go from almost an afterthought, maybe one rack of sweatshirts, to being a third of his business. The only downside is--

Ray Agostinelli

If Penn State would have a losing season, sales would drop dramatically.

Nancy Updike

Oh, is that true?

Ray Agostinelli

Oh my gosh. You can't imagine.

Nancy Updike

Ray says if Penn State loses one football game, sales of Penn State merch at McLanahan's go down 20%. Not for a day, for a week, and sometimes even longer, until the next winning game.

Ira Glass

OK. There's more to that story, but you'll have to go online. That was Nancy Updike.

Let's end this hour at a game. Right? A football game. I went to a game when we were there in 2009 with two juniors, Megan Koch and Zach Fliegel. Megan's Nittany Lion memories include the night of her high school homecoming, which also happen to be the night of the 2005 Michigan game. She was all dressed up. Her dad was on the cell phone.

Megan Koch

He was calling me, telling me, play by play, what was going on. So I remember I go inside, and my field hockey team always gets together in like a hallway. And all the parents come around, everyone comes around and we get pictures taken. And I remember my dad called me, and he's like, you're not going to believe this, but Michigan just scored and we lost with two seconds left on the clock. And I remember I just hung up the phone, and I was like, oh my gosh. I started like crying. And one of the hockey moms came up to me, and she was like, Megan, what's wrong, you know? And I was like, Penn State just lost. And she was-- she laughed. And I have never been so close to punching a parent.

Ira Glass

Zach also has childhood memories of Penn State games. On our way to the stadium, we pass some little boys in the tailgate, tossing around a football.

Zach Fliegel

I used to be that kid, throwing the football around in between cars and stuff.

Ira Glass

The Lions played, the Lions won. It was the last home game of the year, and seniors down in the first row were crying. Zach said even a bad game, being in the stadium, in the student section, was worth it.

Zach Fliegel

I live for this. I'll probably be coming here until I'm old and wrinkled.

Ira Glass

Really? So like, 50 years from now, where will you be sitting? Point to the spot.

Zach Fliegel

Right over there. Hopefully in WC, WD on the 30, 40 yard line, maybe.

Ira Glass

Show me the seats where you want?

And he pointed a third of the way up, 30 yard line. I went around to his friends in the student section. Nobody hesitated. 50 yard line, skybox, 30 yard line. They all wanted to come back.

Then when I emailed Zach this week, and asked if he still thought he'd be back in the year 2059, he said it depends on how the school handles the charges in the next few months.

["WE ARE PENN STATE" CHANT]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program today was produced by Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Miki Meek and me, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Aaron Scott, Alissa Shipp, Brian Reed, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder, Seth Lind is our production manager, Emily Condon is our office manager.

[ACKNOWLEDGMENTS]

Our website, where you can hear our original 2009 show about Penn State, "Number One Party School," for absolutely free, or you can hear any other show we have ever made, our download our apps, or do all kinds of stuff, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who kept holding his personnel conferences at a big boy restaurant near the highway-- I know!-- until--

Eileen

They had a big boy meeting, and they sat him down, they had a sit-down, and they said-- you're not going to do this again, right?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.

Ira Glass

Next week in the podcast of This American Life. There's this children's book, a real one, called Nobody's Family is Going to Change. That is an oddly menacing title, if you ask me. Nobody's Family is Going to Change. It is a thought that occurs to you when you go home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, for sure. We try to figure out whether it's true. Next week on the podcast or on your local Public Radio station.