A Duke Grad’s Advice to Penn Staters

How to deal with the shame of the Jerry Sandusky scandal

I think I know what you’re feeling, Nittany Lions fans. It was five years ago that a young black woman named Crystal Mangum put my alma mater, Duke, in the headlines, accusing three white lacrosse players of raping her at an off-campus party. Maybe you remember the incident. The prosecutor called it a hate crime. The coach resigned. Duke’s president cancelled the rest of the lacrosse season. There were arrests and indictments. Editorials and social commentators across the country took the opportunity to rail about my school’s male-athlete-dominated power structure and how it oppressed women, the poor and minorities.

Granted, there weren’t any children involved. Nor were the accused grown men in positions of authority; they were just guys who’d hired some strippers for a party. But the circumstances were plenty sordid, and the damage seemed incalculable. I was ashamed of my school.

Right now, you’re ashamed of your school, too. You can’t believe Jerry Sandusky would do what he’s accused of; you can’t believe so many others would have known about it and done so little, or nothing at all. Believe me, that’s nothing compared to what you’re going to feel when you get the first letter from your university’s next president crammed full of expressions like “rest assured we will do our utmost” and “thorough investigation” and urging you not to lose faith in your school … oh, and to send some more money, too.

Here’s the thing. Your school isn’t what you thought it was when you were 18, or 20, or 22. Happy Valley was never that happy, even if you were while you were there. But neither is it the den of moral turpitude it looks like today. For me, the lesson of the long, slow unfolding of the Duke lacrosse case was not to jump to conclusions even when they seem such a short hop. Nothing I’d experienced at Duke, as a student and an athlete, made it appear unlikely those lacrosse players had brutalized Crystal Mangum. Places like Penn State and Duke are athletic juggernauts, and they need to keep rolling forward, even if that sometimes means plowing over stuff that gets in the way.

But that’s part of what you love about your school—that it makes it to bowl games and NCAA championships, that unlike friends and colleagues who went to Swarthmore and West Chester and Alvernia, you get to bask in your teams’ residual glory on a national level, and pick up t-shirts at Dick’s instead of just on campus. It’s a weird dichotomy: I cringe at the bullying behavior of the Cameron Crazies even as I wish I were there among them, painted Duke blue and screaming at the top of my lungs.

Schools really are like families. (That’s what “alma mater” means: “foster mother.”) They stiffen us into shapes at a time in life when we’re still amorphous. Sometimes we’re grateful for that; sometimes we’re resentful. Most often, we’re both. My affinity for Duke serves as a reminder of two sides of my nature: the shy, careful writer, and the raging fan who would do anything for a win.

The writer’s still there even when I’m raging. The good parts of Penn State still exist on campus, amid the fall foliage blaze. Try to view this as an opportunity to think a little more deeply about your school—to push past the sheeny recollected haze of beer and football and friendship to examine its past, its progress, where it’s going and what you’d like to see it become. If you’re generally pleased, go on writing checks. If you’re not, write a letter. Let that president know your thoughts on the school you love.

And you should probably be forewarned: Sales of Duke gear, especially lacrosse t-shirts, tripled at the school store in the months after Mangum’s accusation. Never underestimate the shamelessness of a bunch of beer-stoked undergrads.