Why 409 Is the Most Controversial Number in Pennsylvania

Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour apologized for the hockey team's "409" stickers. Now she's backtracking a bit. What does it mean to celebrate Joe Paterno's reinstated wins?

A banner in the parking lot tailgating outside Beaver Stadium before football game between Penn State and Temple in State College on Saturday., November 15, 2014.

A banner in the parking lot tailgating outside Beaver Stadium before football game between Penn State and Temple in State College on Saturday., November 15, 2014.

When Penn State had its vacated football wins restored as part of a deal the NCAA made with Pennsylvania officials, one number was immediately on the minds of Penn State football faithful: 409. That’s the number of times the Nittany Lions won under Joe Paterno, the most of any major college football coach.

Ever since Paterno was fired in November 2011, the number has become famous, even fetishized. Those who defend Paterno say he was made a scapegoat. Defenders usually mention his generosity to the university and his well-liked status among former players. And 409 has become shorthand for that. There’s a car in my neighborhood with 409 bumper stickers. There’s a restaurant in State College called 409 Pizza and Wings. People once held vigil at the spot where a Paterno statue once stood. Hundreds of people rallied in celebration when the wins were restored.

For decades, Penn State football was a team alumni and fans could be proud of — both on and off the field. The 409ers still see PSU football that way. They still see Paterno that way. The people who use 409 as a shorthand say they’re not making light of child abuse, and are simply trying to honor Paterno’s legacy.

Then, the opposition: They believe PSU football — the culture around the football team — was at fault for not doing enough to stop Jerry Sandusky. (This was largely the Freeh report’s conclusion.) “As if this decision or anything else will ever lessen the guilt the university and Paterno share, or ever reduce the disgust which the names Penn State football and Joe Paterno will produce for decades to come,” Keith Olbermann said on his show. “This is Joe Paterno’s legacy. This is Penn State’s legacy. Football was more important to them than saving children.”

A lawyer for a victim of Sandusky’s struck a tone that’s a tad more measured. “There was a movement away from what I thought was a genuine mea culpa on the part of Penn State, having accepted the NCAA sanctions, and one toward, ‘Why did we cave so easily?’ That was disappointing,” Michael Boni said. To the opponents, restoring Paterno’s wins protects the legacy of a man they believe did not do enough to stop Sandusky.

Which leads us back to that number, 409. Penn State’s hockey team was to wear “409” decals on the back of their helmets at a game last week.

Many found this tasteless. Some tweeted at Penn State AD Sandy Barbour, who issued an apology for the “409” sticker on the helmets.

This is odd, in light of her retweet of a “409” tweet and her announcement that the restoration of the wins was a win for Penn State and its student-athletes past & present.” If putting “409” on a helmet is so tasteless, why support restoring the wins at all? Maybe she just doesn’t like gloating: Actually, Joe Paterno was the type of old-school football coach who didn’t like too much celebration.

Barbour has since backed off her comments a bit, and said she wasn’t trying to denigrate the hockey team.

The 409 furor will no doubt continue, as many Paterno supporters now wish to restore a statue Paterno once had on campus. As for the latest hockey jerseys, this weekend the Nittany Lions hockey team will be playing in THON-themed jerseys.

There shouldn’t be any controversy over pediatric cancer charity jerseys, at least.

In other news, Penn State remains a Tier 1 research institution that is considered a “Public Ivy.”

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