Senior College Football Columnist

Penn State in 2012: What or who are people really rooting against?

So you weren't a Penn State fan, how do you now look at this Nittany Lion football team in 2012?

My colleague Gregg Doyel wrote a column talking about why it's understandable to hate Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno, but not the guys who will take the field this fall in State College. And he makes the case why you should pull for them:

These guys aren't those guys. The coach is new. The statue is gone. The uniforms are different, right down to the blue ribbons that will be worn by every single player. Those ribbons won't help Sandusky's victims, but that's not their intention. The ribbons are Penn State's way of saying, "We're sorry, and we remember."

It's a gesture, which is all the 2012 Penn State football team can offer. For decades this was a football program whose symbolism was, in hindsight, telling. No names on jerseys. Nobody was bigger than the program, and since the program was defined by its coach, that meant nobody was bigger than Joe Paterno. The most recognizable symbol of Penn State football? It was Paterno's nose. Or his glasses. Or his high-water pants. Whatever it was, it was Paterno -- just the way he wanted it. This was his show, he called the shots, and who were you to tell Joe Paterno that child welfare officials should be warned about Jerry Sandusky?

My sense is for those who stayed, they will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Penn State fans every bit as much as Jack Ham, Curt Warner and other Nittany Lion greats do. And they should.

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In the wake of the scandal, I've wondered a lot about how the fans of the school are coping with all of this that has rocked that community over the past 10 months. Certainly, you can see a lot of their reactions online every time you write or say something about their program. Every time you mention that a player has transferred out, some believe you're celebrating the news. It is a messy story that has an aftershock quality to it.

I've talked to other Penn State people who feel like this has all been one bad dream. As much as anyone, they feel sad for all of those children who became victims and the families that are truly suffering and will for the rest of their lives. I've also spoken to Penn State students who cringe at the thought that the world looks at them through the prism of that Penn State. “We feel like we were on trial too,” one of them told me a few weeks back.

The subsequent backlash that Mark Emmert's punishment on the program sparked by some Penn State die-hards, I suspect, has only further inflamed the view of the program. Same for the reactions of a few PSU fans ripping those players via Twitter who transferred out of the program the past few weeks. Add in the numerous statements from the Paterno family spokesman, which each spark more outrage and it's been a combustible mix.

I've always felt like a big reason why fans tend to hate a program or team has as much to do with that team's fans (and therefore its image) as the players or coaches or the program itself. I'm not sure everyone who roots against Notre Dame did so because of Digger or Holtz or Gerry Faust or Mike Brey or because of the Rocket or Rudy, but rather because they grew weary of feeling like ND was rammed down their throats by us in the media and by their fans, and that probably rings true to some extent with Duke, USC and a bunch of other powerhouse programs too. Yeah, sure, you may really hate the way Charlie Weis or Pete Carroll or Coach K act, but in a lot of cases, it goes back to who that team is representing. Maybe you don't want them rejoicing.

Is it really a stretch to think that the reactions of the Paterno family and that of many of the outspoken fans who feel their school/team has been “screwed” or are hawking t-shirts like this around State College push people who probably were on the fence about Penn State this fall to root against the program?

I am curious to hear from people how much, if at all, those external factors come into play in who you root against especially as it relates to Penn State going forward.


Bruce Feldman is a senior writer for CBSSports.com and college football commentator for CBS Sports Network. He is a New York Times Bestselling author, who has written books including Swing Your Sword, Meat Market and Cane Mutiny. Prior to joining CBS, Feldman spent 17 years at ESPN.
 
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