- Happy Valley dir. by Amir Bar-Lev
In November 2011, former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was charged with over fifty counts of sexual abuse against children, many of whom were involved with his Second Mile charity for underprivileged youth. An investigation revealed that a number of prominent Penn State administrators covered up Sandusky’s crimes and showed a “total disregard for the safety and welfare” of the victims. Legendary head coach Joe Paterno knew about Sandusky’s activities since 2001. While Paterno informed Penn State’s athletic director and president upon hearing of Sandusky’s acts, school trustees felt Paterno did not do enough and fired him nine games into the season. Less than two months after he was dismissed, Paterno died of complications from lung cancer. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) imposed harsh sanctions and vacated all Penn State football victories from 1998 through 2011, stripping Paterno’s title as the most-winning football coach in NCAA Division I history.
Amir Bar-Lev’s powerful documentary Happy Valley examines the fallout from the Sandusky scandal and the crisis of identity it led to within the Penn State community. While the movie offers little new reporting on the case, it explores the role that the veneration of figures such as Sandusky and Paterno played in abetting the abuse. Happy Valley’s most significant contribution comes from the open-ended questions it poses about the wider sociocultural effects of overemphasizing college football on university campuses.
Much of Happy Valley is dedicated to examining Paterno’s legacy in light of the Sandusky scandal. Along with his success on the field over forty-six seasons, Paterno was hailed as the exemplar college coach. Biographer Joe Posnanski explains that the coach became a symbol of “doing things the right way” by emphasizing both academics and athletics. After he turned down a lucrative offer from the New England Patriots in 1973, Paterno became “Saint Joe,” a beloved father figure who won on the field and exhibited the proper values off it. It is this belief that the Penn State football program is exceptionally responsible that its supporters hold onto in the face of the sanctions and outside criticism about the damaging influence of the sport over seemingly everything in State College, Pennsylvania. These supporters are eager to absolve Paterno and the community from any responsibility for Sandusky’s actions. For example, Joe Paterno’s widow Sue blames Joe’s naiveté and points to outsiders’ jealousy as the reason that Sandusky’s crimes were linked to her late husband.
Contrasting this widespread defensiveness, others in the film negatively compare Penn State football to religion or nationalism. Fittingly, considerable screen time is devoted to the debates about whether to take down or modify two icons honoring Paterno: a statue next to the stadium and a large outdoor mural depicting notable State College personalities. These objects serve as powerful reminders of the challenges of honoring flawed sports heroes and the difficulty in rewriting long-held narratives about figures as beloved as Paterno.
Paterno’s firing results in an “us-versus-them” mentality by many within the Penn State community. Media outlets are frequently blamed for perpetuating an unfairly negative [End Page 400] image of Penn State. For instance, amid a student riot after Paterno’s firing, we see and hear chants of “fuck the media,” a photographer being threatened, and a news van being overturned. The claims of media bias, however, are significantly weakened when juxtaposed with Happy Valley’s interviews with a range of people affected by the scandal and with observers in the community. The film’s lengthiest interviews are with Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt Sandusky, who made the difficult decision to come forward during the trial as one of the abuse victims. Matt provides the clearest picture of how Jerry Sandusky used his status as a football coach and founder of the Second Mile charity to find and exploit vulnerable boys for decades. The cult of personality and aura around the Nittany Lions team was so strong that, even after Matt’s mother raised concerns...