I am not a Penn State fan, nor am I a Penn State detractor.
I have no allegiance to an institution that so many people love with such intensity that it fills their hearts up like balloons about to burst. If you come from Philadelphia, you either love college football or you don’t…if it’s the former, odds are your loyalties will be entangled in Penn State, because they’re the best (and really the only) option; if it’s the latter, then you’ll likely spend your life wondering why people care so much about a school and a football program that they would bury themselves in denial in response to arguably the worst collegiate sports-related scandal in history.
I went to a college that dumped its football program because of a lack of interest and revenue, so clearly I lack the understanding to know why Penn State fans are the way they are.
In focusing on the students, alumni and fans of the beloved school — and not convicted sexual predator Jerry Sandusky, the late former coach Joe Paterno and disgraced administrators Graham Spanier, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz — I can relate to the die-hard fans’ dilemma, even if I don’t fully understand it.
It’s only natural to defend what you love with conviction and ferocity, so for this I do not fault them nor will I accuse them of being brainwashed. I can only imagine what my own reaction would be if somebody told me I could no longer view something I worshiped with the same purity I once had, especially when the indiscretion in question went so far beyond my brain’s comprehension.
However, this is also where the biggest problem lies for me in this catastrophic mess. I may not have a dog in the fight, but I have followed the Sandusky scandal assiduously from the time it blew up in Penn State’s face last year until the present day, after Sandusky’s conviction and the damning Louis Freeh report that added a few badly broken limbs to the black eyes that had already knocked the university and its many supporters to their knees.
I may not have ever revered Penn State, but I do know what it’s like to love a team and a sport so much, in good times and bad, that it physically hurts. When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, it was the most joyous night of my then 22-year-old life. This was probably the case for many of us — those like me who had never witnessed a professional sports championship in this town, as well as my elders who had waited 25 years for such an enthralling occasion to occur again.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this (I would give money, and maybe a finger or toe, to stop the bleeding that is the 2012 Phillies season), it seems more and more troubling when you put this love and devotion into perspective when looking at what happened at Penn State.
It’s fine to root for the teams you love with all of your heart, but at what cost? How did we get to the point where a football team became more important than protecting innocent children who were already at a disadvantage when they came into contact with Sandusky, a monster who preyed on their fragile little lives before they ever had the chance to realize their true potential? And again, I’m not saying this is necessarily the case for all Penn State fans (or even a large majority of them), but when you entrust a human being with such infallibility, as was often the case with Paterno, then you need to at least take a look at the bigger picture when he exhibits failure as a leader.
I love sports. When I’m not writing about sports at work, odds are I’m watching a game on TV at home or combing the Internet for interesting sports-related stories. This passion was instilled in me by my parents, who love sports, and I suspect I will attempt to one day pass it on to my own children.
But we must draw a line somewhere. We have to be able to distinguish sports from real life, because when all is said and done, one matters, and one doesn’t. At the end of the day, we mean nothing to the sports figures we worship; like us, they try to do the right thing and look out for their own families, and we must challenge ourselves to place more importance on the things that truly matter in our own lives. I’m talking about our families, our friends, our health, and most of all, our integrity.
Integrity was taken for granted at Penn State, and because so much importance was put on football and the man so many viewed as a deity, the lives of 10 children (and possibly many others) were badly harmed. Sure, they may have moved on and started careers and families of their own, and hopefully Sandusky’s place behind bars for the rest of his sorry life can be viewed as closure for them, but the abuse is something they will carry with them until the day they die. And that’s not right.
Who is really to blame for what happened at Penn State will always be a matter of personal opinion, and there are thousands of articles on the Internet that can help you reach your own conclusion on the matter. However, in this particular case, it’s irrelevant; all that matters (or should matter) is that something so horrifying that should never happen to anybody was allowed to take place for years and years and years in Happy Valley.
As long as Penn State was winning football games and putting on a show for 100,000-plus fans every home game, then everything else that came with it was secondary. Knowing what you know now, tell me, does that seem morally fair or right?
It makes me incredibly sad to live in a world where a love of a particular sport can turn a blind eye to such malicious and illegal actions. While I don’t expect my own strong feelings for sports to ever dissipate, what’s happened at Penn State has at least allowed me to gain some very important perspective. It’s fine that sports matter to us, because they provide us joy when life beats us down; but on the flip side of that coin, they shouldn’t be put on a pedestal above the things that really do matter in the scheme of our everyday lives.
I know how helpless and empty I’d feel if somebody tried to take advantage of someone in my family the way Jerry Sandusky did to those helpless Second Mile children. Paterno defenders point out all the good he did over his lengthy career, and much of it is valid, but if football didn’t matter so much at Penn State, most of these horrors could have been prevented.
Football, or any sport for that matter, shouldn’t be powerful enough to blind us to what is really going on around us. We should love sports because they are a beautiful, wonderful thing, but we should also place more of an emphasis on loving our families, friends, neighbors and our own life experiences instead of caring so much about a game, which in the end, is all that football really is. ••EndFragment