The Sports Kid Column: Why Aren’t We Talking About the Riot at Penn State?

Try this: Google the simple phrase, “Penn State,” click the “News” tab and sift through the results that come up.

The first six stories that come up are about Mike McQueary, a former assistant football coach who was awarded $7.3 million in a suit against the university for its defamation against him after his testimony helped in the prosecution of Jerry Sandusky. Half the stories for the next five pages will be about Penn State football’s momentous upset of Ohio State this past weekend. You’ll even find a set of vintage photos from a football game against Syracuse in 1974.

Now try this: keep your Penn State tab open. Open a new tab, Google the word “Baltimore” and click the “News” tab. Click where it says “Recent” and choose “Custom Range.” Set the range from April 18, 2015 to April 25, 2015. See how long it takes you to find the word “riot.” Click back to your Penn State tab. See how long it takes you to find the word “riot.”

Don’t waste too much time sifting through the Penn State results. The first mention of the word “riot” is in a tiny subheader at the bottom of page two. The first actual news article about the riot that occurred at Penn State — from a little-known Pennsylvania sports blog called — won’t appear on your Google search until page four. Here’s the headline for that piece: “Arrests pending after downtown disturbance follows Penn State upset win.”


Some “disturbance” huh?


The headlines from the New York Times for each respective riot are as follows:

  1. “Baltimore Enlists National Guard and a Curfew to Fight Riots and Looting”
  2. “At Least 11 Identified in Damage After Penn St.’s Upset Win”

You actually won’t find a headline that calls what happened after Penn State a riot, outside of its campus newspaper the Daily Collegian (which covered it outstandingly) and — if you specifically Google “Penn State Riot” — the other news update from (which didn’t actually bother to report the event beyond what the Daily Collegian gifted them). Not a whisper from the Washington Post. Not a peep from the Atlantic. Not the slightest acknowledgement from the L.A. Times, or the Seattle Times, or USA Today, or the Chicago Tribune or the New York tabloids. Nothing. Penn State’s on-campus blog, Onward State, actually elected to call Saturday night’s scene a “rally.”

I’m all for a little, actually a lot of, celebration after a big win. I was watching the game on my phone at a party and texting/screaming/crying to my friends who go to Penn State. NYU kids thought I was lost. All this is not to say that the scene at Penn State Saturday night was on par with the scene in Baltimore after the Freddie Gray protests. It was far from it. The damage and destruction is not in the same realm, and Baltimore is a city of exponentially more people than State College, Pennsylvania. No one was severely injured at Penn State. But the police did show up on horseback in riot gear. They did pepper spray a crowd. There were several arrests made.

The rioters and looters in Baltimore were demonized nationwide. Everyone had an absolutely burning take, many of which guilted black people for rioting using the peaceful history of Martin Luther King Jr. Social media ripped protesters who were protesting something real — the non-indictment of a police officer who brutally murdered a black man. Yet, when thousands of drunk college students take to the streets, vandalize their town and get pepper sprayed and broken up by police in riot gear, we call it a “rally” and a “disturbance?”

I wonder if maybe, just maybe, this has something to do with that discrepancy.

Email Bobby Wagner at [email protected]



  1. As a PSU student who was there, I have a couple things to add. I’m not going to try to justify our behavior in any way, but rather answer the article title’s question as best I can, why I think the media/society sort of let this one go. On campus most of us afterwards referred to the celebration as a riot. Our student body caused an estimated $18,000-$30,000 in damage, and while it was only a few kids who took down the lamp posts and stole the streets signs, many egged them on. Many of us, myself included, are ashamed and embarrassed we caused damage to our town. This GoFundMe has been set up to raise the funds for the damage caused (which obviously doesn’t fully atone, I know).

    Thankfully, there was no violence toward law enforcement from students in Beaver Canyon, which I think is part of the reason it didn’t receive widespread coverage. I spoke to four or five Ohio State fans still in jerseys, all of whom felt safe. Penn State fans were coming up to them engaging in the playful banter of a friendly rivalry.

    After the crowd was mostly dispersed, I stuck around to talk to some of the police and thank them for their work. They explained to me that they didn’t like having to use pepper spray, but did because of the sheer size of the crowd, and for our safety because a few people were trying to burn Ohio State jerseys. Baltimore featured bottles and rocks thrown at law enforcement by hundreds of people, businesses being deliberately burned down, the looting of 27 stores, etc….You mentioned this when referencing the differing scales of the two events. There were, of course, obnoxious drunks here at Penn State directing scattered obscenities toward police, which is never okay.

    Anyway, I think much of what determines the “riot” designation from the media, etc. is the root cause, and whether the resulting event is one born from celebration versus one born from controversy/anger (justified or not). Baltimore obviously began with protests of the Freddie Gray murder, whereas this was after a football win. I’m not saying that should be the case, but the way public gatherings are covered seem to be sculpted by this. This Ohio State riot would be comparable to championship parades in sports (where damages exceeding $30,000 are usually caused), which are typically described as celebrations by the media. And the scale is important. While the number should always be zero, 11 were arrested here, while 202 were in Baltimore (and over $9M in damage caused), which makes Baltimore a more desirable event for the media to focus on.

    There is an example, from right here at Penn State, which leads me to believe the limited reaction to this Ohio State riot is minimally race-related. In 2011, students took to the very same Beaver Canyon following the firing of Joe Paterno, and the ensuing event was justifiably referred to as a riot by every major news outlet (LA Times, NY Times, Fox, CBS — just Google 2011 Penn State riot or Paterno riot, etc.). This was carried out by the very same, white-majority student body.

    Part of this is drunk college kids in celebration always seem to get somewhat of a pass in society for their actions, however stupid that may be. And in this case, there wasn’t malicious anger in the crowd (but certainly a lot of drunken stupidity), so it was just sort of viewed as “College kids will be college kids.”

    There’s a ton of white kids here which we’re all aware of, and which could be certainly be viewed as a problem. But I’m not convinced this particular issue is one of black and white.

  2. Maybe Im missing something here but this is hardly a riot. Its pretty much a bunch of drunk kids in the streets celebrating and getting a little rowdy. No brawls, no shootings, no stabbings, no looting. A handful of idiots from those thousands took down a lamp post and that seems to be the only major thing caught on video. Other than that the riot police were on hand if things got out of control and they were herding the crowd as needed.

    What other damage was caused other than the lamp post and stealing of some street signs? Anyone killed? Anyone swarmed? Anyone stabbed?


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