Dear Penn State Football,
I am sitting here in the bleachers of our community’s youth football league complex.* We’re on our second and final day of drills as part of the three-day evaluation process. They take their football pretty seriously around here. There’s a certain amount of civic pride surrounding our high school’s football team. If I understand correctly, they’ve won a handful of state championships in the not-too-distant past. That’s kind of a big deal.
When we moved in November, we left a community that was consumed with the high school baseball team. And it made sense. The tiny school’s baseball team has been pretty successful in recent memory. One of their top players was drafted by Tampa not too long ago. I firmly believe that success is rooted in their strong youth baseball program. Countless volunteers put in countless hours of blood, sweat, and tears in order to pull it off because they’re so passionate about the game.
We know how passionate people are about your football team, Penn State. And we also know the lengths some people will go to in order to protect the Nittany Lion football brand. And that concerns me because such passion could easily be present here and in countless communities like ours.
Back in the summer of 1995, I convinced many people from Big 8 country that I was a fan of yours. I was working at Philmont Scout Ranch and came in contact with groups of Scouts from around the world. (As a side note, remind me some day to tell the story of my international communication skills that I displayed at Philmont in 1996.) Whenever I would encounter a crew from Nebraska, I’d naturally ask them if they were Husker fans. Of course, there was no surprise in their response – a resounding “Yes!“
I’d smirk, throw my hands up in the air and say, “Oh, Penn State got robbed!” It was fun. It was some light-hearted ribbing to garner a response. And boy, did I ever get a response. It was fun to egg them on. Did I really care? No! But Husker fans are fun to get riled up. I mean, they still have sites arguing how they rightfully won the national championship that year. They’re a fun group to mess with.
Thank you for giving me that opportunity.
Now, however, you aren’t going to hear me say anything close to “Penn State got robbed.” Because I firmly believe that you got the most fair punishment the NCAA and the B1G could issue in this situation. In fact, you might have gotten off just a little bit easy, especially when you consider the prospect of having four+ years of absolutely no football whatsoever. And it seems that this was pretty close to happening. The systemic cover-up of the evil acts committed by one of your assistant football coaches meant something needed to be done. The only way things were going to change was if an outside force stepped in and took action.
I know what it’s like to live in a culture that has elevated an athletic program to untouchable status. I did, after all, live in the heart of Wildcat Country for a time. For seven and a half years, I lived in the very long, very orange shadow of the Tennessee Volunteers. The Peyton Manning and national championship teams were included in those years. So the entire region was all orange, all the time.
I’m also a native Hoosier. I bleed cream and crimson. If our DJ had done what he was supposed to do, my wife was supposed to dance with her dad to Indiana, Our Indiana at our wedding reception. I’ve seen first-hand what it’s like to be immersed in a culture consumed with a college sports team. I also know what it’s like to be the fan of a program whose coach is larger than life. By the way, have you ever heard the joke about Bob Knight standing before God? Yeah. I know what it’s like to be part of a fanbase that’s consumed with your program and your coach. After all, Knight was fired more than a decade ago and Neil Reed was still persona non grata in the Hoosier state. Changing a culture takes time.
I’m torn with how to feel about you, Penn State. The acts that were committed and then covered up are grotesque. They’re right up there with the worst kind of evil that can be perpetrated against someone. Innocent lives were ruined. And no one stood up to stop it. No one fought for them. That’s disgusting. Some might say it’s unforgivable.
But I also get that the majority of the people associated with your program and your university had absolutely nothing to do with these events. Yes, there are some who are making fools of themselves, trying to wash the football program’s hands of any wrongdoing. I wish they’d just stop. It’s making the rest of you sound like mindless defenders who would cheer for Lucifer himself, as long as he was wearing the Penn State blue and white. Believe me. I’ve encountered that ilk before. I know these folk are in the vast minority. Most of your fans are just as disgusted as the rest of the nation about what happened and how it was allowed to continue to happen.
So what do I do with you now, Penn State? How do I move past this? There’s a huge part of me that would really like to see your program permanently dismantled. After all, this abuse was allowed to continue because of the football program. So why not eliminate the football program in order to make sure this never happens again? Yeah. There’s a big part of me that thinks this should happen. So there’s part of me that’s rooting for your failure and eventual expulsion from the Big Ten.
But there’s this other part of me that realizes that there are a lot of people who had absolutely nothing to do with this nightmare. There’s a part of me that sees potential for a great redemption story here. And I’m not just talking about success on the field. I’m talking about a culture that stands up for the little guy. What if you stood on the forefront of advocating for abuse victims? What if you dedicated a certain amount of profits from your football team to go towards the foundation of a some type of center for abused and exploited children on your campus? What if you drew a line in the sand and said, “Never again! We won’t allow anything like this to happen ever again!”? What if you led the way in transparency and openness in big-time college athletics? What if Penn State became synonymous again for doing things way, even if it isn’t football-related?
I love a good redemption story. So there’s part of me that’s silently rooting for you to get your act together and come out better than you ever could have been if you hadn’t been caught. If that happens, I’ll stand up and applaud. But it’s going to take a lot of convincing. You’re going to have to show the nation that you really mean it when you say things are going to change. I can think of several programs who have been caught breaking the rules over the years. Unfortunately, they rarely seem to show actual change and are eventually caught for breaking the same rules again. Don’t let that happen to you, Penn State. For the sake of the innocent lives around you, you cannot allow that to happen again. I sure hope you can break the cycle. I know you can. There are a lot of smart people at your school. I’m pretty sure you’ll listen to them and ultimately become an inspiring story of redemption.
Just don’t expect me to allow my children to step foot anywhere near your campus anytime soon, if ever.
* I started writing this post on Wednesday evening