STATE COLLEGE, PA - NOVEMBER 11: Penn State students attend a candlelight vigil for abused victims in the Penn State scandal on Old Main Lawn, November 11, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania. Former Penn State football defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is charged with raping a boy in the shower of the football building. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
I am not here to moralize or judge or insert my inevitably hackneyed $.02 (which, due to the inflation that has been created in the market known as "people giving their opinions about the situation at Penn State", has depreciated to the point of worthlessness, no matter how well-stated the arguments presented may be). The principal points have been debated, and there is nothing more to add. I don't need to tell you that what has happened at Penn State over so many years has been, for lack of a better word, horrific. This, we can all agree, is fact. Beyond this point, things become less clear cut. Lines of demarcation wilt under the vitriol, and we often lose sight of what has happened and what is truly important.
I'm not concerned with "legacies" either, not because of the school or the people involved in all of this, but rather the fact that the concept itself is flawed, and is not one that I find any great connection to vis-a-vis the world of sports. A legacy is subject to change and manipulation, before, during, and after the fact. It's a vague notion that's always changing, despite the fact that it is a thing that, we believe, is something that can be grasped in a given moment. Examined, even, like a prehistoric insect trapped in amber. "That was its legacy." A legacy is nothing more than what you feel about somebody or something in that very moment; things often change. Of course, change can be good or bad, so my gripe is with mostly with the imprecision of the concept.
What I am interested in is the concept of change, of the end of something and the beginning of another, no matter how fraught with angst and suspicion and worry and sadness that that new beginning may carry. All of these feelings are trapped in a tattered sack, dragged against the gravelly flank of a deserted highway; the cacophony of emotion is only muted by the single raspy note of the bag against this rough surface, a harshness that is not unlike the reality that is the ever-forward movement of time after such a catastrophic event.
Eventually, you pick up the bag and sling it over your shoulder. You have to, because the treacherous points in the gravelly path eventually puncture that container, and what results is perhaps worse than the existence of those emotions in the first place. These emotions run wild, thus forcing you to run every direction but forward in an effort to collect them and reel them back in. The steep decline from the gravel path to the nearby ditch exists as a reminder of the darkness that can still be found.
While Penn State fans may find themselves in a sort of existential crisis, it's important to note that not all change is either good or bad. Sometimes, change is just change. Sometimes, walking down the highway with the bag over your shoulder is better than the alternative: the self-stalling inertia of a shell-shocked daze.
Before I continue, I want to make clear that none of the things I'm about to say will ever fix or "make things okay." Also, while I will be focusing on the football team itself--as well as the PSU fan base--I'll make explicit what should by now be implicitly understood: none of the emotions pouring out of Happy Valley compare in scope, intensity, or relevance to what the victims of this horrifying scandal have had to deal with. I don't want to make it seem like I am implying that football can make all of this go away in any way. But, like I said, I don't think that anyone needs or wants one more person to tell them the obvious.
I would be lying if I said that the stench of this scandal won't linger for quite some time, maybe forever. I cannot promise PSU fans or alums that this is the end of this, because it isn't.
What I can promise, however, is the familiar. These things might be so inherent to your nature, Penn State fan, that you might not even think them worthy of mentioning...but, in my mind, they should be revisited. In light of all the talk of legacy--and how that legacy, once questioned and dissected, affects identity--it is important to know the foundations of a thing before knowing anything else.
This is a chance--albeit an unsolicited one, to be sure--to not only reinvent, but to invent outright. It's a crisis of identity: who is Penn State?
The Nittany Lions will enter the season with questions, just like every other team in college football and every other team in Penn State history. "The quarterback, the offensive line, the secondary?", you ask. You wait a second, then ask "The coach?"
Penn State will take the field at high noon against a tough Ohio Bobcats squad on September 1st at Beaver Stadium. In a climate of moral and emotional uncertainty, the Nittany Lion players will run out in the same plain uniforms that have been worn for decades. By the third quarter, the white numbers reveal grass stains and the helmets bear the markings of conflict.
The September sun will reign high in the sky, watching over the proceedings like it always does throughout the first month of the season. Penn State will win by a few touchdowns...a tight end will probably catch one of them.
Penn State will then travel to Charlottesville to take on a revitalized UVA team. In a sense, the experience of traveling to a road venue will, paradoxically, represent a familiar experience for many PSU fans. You make plans. You book a room, buy tickets, prepare an RV, take off work, read up on the opponent, engage in your own carefully crafted and largely nonsensical brand of superstition. You do what you've always done.
It's homecoming, and Northwestern is in town. You see old friends, you make new ones. You walk the paths that you walked years ago, before any of this. Things are as they were for a brief time.
The offense and defense might look different at times, whether with respect to quality or philosophy. Still, in the end this team will hang its hat on the same ol' things: running the ball and stopping the run. It's a cliché, sure, but it's a cliché because it's so utterly synonymous with Penn State's brand of football. Silas Redd will carry the ball as many times as possible as the Lions find their playmakers, and Michael Mauti and Gerald Hodges will headline a linebacking group that will continue PSU's long line of excellence at the position.
It's the heart of Big Ten season, and the grass in the seemingly endless fields near the stadium--populated by row after row of RVs--is wet with October frost. You toss a football with a friend, a son, a father, daring not to drop it for fear that that ball will never be truly dry again. You slip a few times, allowing the ball to fall in spite of your efforts. It always happens that way.
The crowds will be loud, as always. Kain Colter, Braxton Miller, and Taylor Martinez all, at various points in the fall, make a confused gesture, bringing their hand up to the ear hole in their helmet before throwing their hands up dejectedly and calling a timeout as the play clock ticks down: 3, 2, 1. The referee's whistle shrieks as these quarterbacks meet with a disgruntled head coach. The crowd, elated, roars.
The season's end is near. Wisconsin makes the trip to Happy Valley, a year after the Badgers scored 45 unanswered points against the Nittany Lions. Whether a Leaders division title is on the line or not, college football's greatest prize, sweet revenge, is there for the taking.
The regular season ends. You pack up and drive away from the stadium one last time...until next year, of course. You say your goodbyes to tailgating friends and neighbors, to the plot of earth on which your RV sits, and to the stadium itself, even. Then, you do what's hardest: you move on but don't forget.
In perhaps one of the most psychologically compelling scenes in all of Shakespeare, King Lear wanders a rain-soaked heath, flustered and confused and maybe a little bit insane as he attempts to cope with the his daughters' impudence and his own increasing irrelevance. The past seven or eight months have sort of mirrored this Purgatorial wandering period for the Penn State program and its fans, a period in which Penn State has bared its darkest, innermost, and often most primal emotions.
Is Bill O'Brien Penn State's Tom o' Bedlam*, the one who, despite an unimpressive appearance on the surface, ends up bringing
King Lear the program out of the storm and into safety?
Of course, you probably know how King Lear ends. The language of tragedy is remarkably consistent. On the heels of a gruesome end, the few survivors--Kent, Albany, and Edgar--recognize that what has happened, has happened. There is acknowledgement of both sadness and the necessity of making an attempt to move forward even when it seems impossible to do so:
Exeunt, with a dead march.
This process won't be easy, to say the very least. Nothing like this has ever been seen before (and hopefully will never be seen ever again). I admit, many of the things that I listed seem like trivial points in light of the magnitude of the subject. No amount of antidote can successfully counteract this poison, it would seem.
It all comes down to this. When you think about, when you say, when you yell, "We Are Penn State," stop and think. Who is Penn State, really? What does it stand for? What makes it unique, and why should anybody else care to know and understand this Penn State of yours?
As the Saturdays roll by one by one this fall, a new light will shine down on Happy Valley, and many Penn Staters will realize that many of the things that once seemed secondary, are, in fact, the most important things.
*I'm sorry, but once the Lear analogy started rolling, there was literally no way I wasn't going to work this in somehow.