Molly Gonzales | Layout Editor
“PA Priests Graduated from PSU,” reads the bed sheet hung from the wrap-around-porch of an Atwood Street row house. Snickering Pitt students crowd around the sign to take pictures for Snapchat and Instagram. “This one might be the best we’ve seen!” a girl in a tie-dye shirt covered in Greek letters shrieked. This year’s Pitt vs. Penn State football game left the streets of South Oakland littered with crushed beer cans, empty juul pods, and degrading bed sheet signs. Nearly overnight, the entire town became a frat party.
While I will never truly understand football or the traditions that go with it, making signs out of bed sheets seems to be a quintessential experience for game-day. These signs are strung from front porches all across South Oakland weeks in advance. This year, a majority of them poked fun at Penn State’s brutal history of employing convicted rapist and pedophile Jerry Sandusky. While Pitt Student Affairs sent out a University-wide email warning students to behave themselves, there was, to no surprise, absolutely no consequences for those who didn’t. They were everywhere. “#Joe Knew” and “‘Saturdays are for the boys’ – Jerry Sandusky’” were crudely scrawled in black spray-painted letters and hung on nearly every block.
Using a rapist football coach as ammo against another team is absolutely horrific. The disrespect to the victims and their families in the name of “school spirit” is deeply upsetting and problematic. To use sexual violence as a joke or cheer tells survivors their trauma does not matter and encourages sexual violence by making it into a light-hearted joke.
What happens off the field isn’t a concern to the football players and coaching staff, even if it directly pertains to their institution. I had the opportunity to sit down with an offensive linemen on the Pitt football team (I will call him Chad to protect his identity) to discuss what exactly their organization does to combat the spread of hate. The short answer is absolutely nothing, because according to Chad, “it really isn’t our problem.” I show him a particularly repulsive bed-sheet sign that reads “Ollison: 10.4 Yards Per Touch. Sandusky: 10.4 Years Per Touch. #H2P”. He snorts, “I think it’s funny. We have shit on them and they have so much shit on us, why not do the same?”
Do you think any of these cheers or signs cross a line? He smiles again, his eyes wandering from the iPhone screen to his own hands, and shrugs his shoulders. “No, not at all. Maybe in a few years.” According to Chad, neither the coaching staff nor the players talk about fan misconduct at the Penn State game or the rest of the season. What happens off the field is not their business, even if it is directly about their very team. “None of that matters,” Chad says, “It’s our job to focus on the game.”
What exactly is it about football games that brings out the worst in people? Why does “Saturdays are for the Boys” exist for football and not soccer, tennis, or hockey? “It’s an American sport. It’s a man’s game,” Chad says. “Why not get hammered for the game if you want to be able to enjoy it?” The culture surrounding football games is similar to the culture surrounding frat parties. Both include excessive drinking with intentions of blacking out, catcalling, sexual harassment, and a blatant disrespect for women, LGBTQIA+ people, and really anybody who isn’t named Chad.
Fast forward to a few weeks after the football game, when Brett Kavanaugh is announced to be our latest rapist on the bench. With anger and a sense of deep hopelessness, I make three signs to hang in my first floor bedroom window that read, “Believe Survivors,” “Vote: November 6th!” and, “Fuck Tr*mp!” (in my defense the curse word was censored). Within a few hours of putting these laptop-sized signs in my window, I receive notes from neighbors threatening to blackmail me into eviction. They claimed they didn’t feel safe living near someone who spreads hate. After “Fuck Tr*mp” is replaced with a rainbow painted equal sign, I still receive threatening messages and MAGA stickers on my front door. Did any of the individuals who participated in the Sandusky-related ‘humor’ get blackmail threats? Did any of the folks who actively participated in the degeneration of safety in Oakland feel unsafe in their own house? Did University administration do anything to prevent their campus from becoming unbearable and unsafe for survivors of sexual assault?
There seems to be a huge disconnect in what is socially acceptable and what is not on campus. Protesting misogyny, decrying sexual violence, and encouraging voter turnout in South Oakland is not OK, but making rape jokes that encourage passerby not to take sexual assault seriously is fine in the name of football and tradition.
Who is going to take responsibility for the gross misconduct of college football fans? It clearly won’t be the team, the players, the coaches, or the administration. If most of the fans seem too drunk to care anyways, how can safety be guaranteed?
“I think anybody who used the Sandusky trials as a cheer against Penn State knowingly or unknowingly exploited the trauma of tons of people,” says sophomore Natalie Nelson. “It minimizes the seriousness of the victim’s trauma.” Nelson does not agree with Sandusky-related humor in the context of football and recognizes the necessary shift in culture that must occur to guarantee safety on campus. “Everyone thinks, well ‘boys will be boys,’ but my heart breaks for the victims of sexual violence who had to walk around and see those signs.”
As the football season comes to a close, it is vital to reflect on these unsavory memories in order to create a safe campus culture, one in which sexual assault is demonized and not turned into a cheer and spray painted on a bed sheet sign. While not every individual who attended the Pitt vs. Penn State football game is a rape apologist, many ignored the troubling cheers in order to have a good time. The ignorance of sexual assault-related humor makes it more OK to commit sexual assault. This attitude is endemic across campuses in the United States on game day. University culture does not change overnight, but football games offer a platform for people to let loose and have fun without threat of authority or consequences, leaving these sleepy college towns in chaos any given Saturday.