As fans, we all must learn from Penn State


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. ••


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