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Mike Elk

Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times

November 10th, 2011 2:11 PM

Penn State Riots About White Men Not Liking to Be Held Accountable

If, like me, you scanned the crowds rioting at Penn State last night after the announcement of the firing of Joe Paterno, you may have noticed that nearly all the people there were white men. The riots were about white men not liking to be held accountable. 

As a native Pennsylvanian, I never once considered attending Penn State University. Penn State always seemed like a place full of cliquish white people recalling their glory years of making fun of the dorky kids in high school. More progressive white people and people of color went to big city state schools like Pitt or Temple while whiter, more conservative types tended to dominate the settings of the rural, fraternity-heavy Penn State campus.

At the center of Penn State’s conservative culture stood Joe Paterno -- who frequently campaigned and fundraised for conservative politicians throughout Pennsylvania. As my friend sportswriter Dave Zirin points out, Penn State was a company town and football was the company that funded Penn State. Home football games attracted 100,000 people per game. Each year the program pumped a whopping $59 million into the poor rural economy of the surrounding area, from the sales of food to buying hotel rooms to the selling of sports gears, and created $50 million in pure profit that could be distributed to other programs at the university. In addition, Penn State football fostered large alumni donations as football games fostered strong bonds with graduates. To many Pennsylvanians, Joe Paterno represented Penn State and all it stood for. 

Old, conservative white men around the state revered the football coach who stayed on well past his prime into his eighties. Paterno stayed on when others told him he was wrong not to change his old ways, well after his coaching seemed ineffective and his team’s record suffered.  Paterno’s perseverance in the face of his deficiencies was a beacon of hope for many white men in Pennsylvania who felt their power challenged by liberals and people of color seeking to change their ways.

That's why I paid attention to the crowd rioting on television at Penn State last night. The firing of Joe Paterno upset the natural order that white men like Joe Paterno could rule not based on merit -- as Paterno’s coaching deficiencies showed -- but because white men always had. 

As a Pennsylvanian, I could not be more ashamed of Penn State. This weekend I will instead be rooting for the University of California-Berkeley Golden Bears. There students participating in OccupyCal bravely faced police attacks for peaceably assembling, at the same moment Penn State white males attacked police over the firing of an 84-year-old football coach who enabled a child rapist.

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