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What Are We Rooting For?

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Photo Attribution: @eknielsen

Penn State is in many ways a larger, wealthier Oklahoma State. They are both public land-grant universities seemingly dropped in the middle of sprawling, soil-rich states that are too busy to even notice their existence.

Penn State was founded in 1855, some forty-five years Oklahoma State’s elder. Its endowment is 4x that of OSU and it boasts twice as many students. It is a terrific university with a beautiful campus located in a town that knows nothing else.

And the entire serene operation is currently being ravaged by the rest of the country.

I need not patronize you with the details because all of you are aware by now of what took place. It is, by every rational account, the most grotesque scandal in college sports history. You can argue that Baylor’s was worse, and probably win that argument, but this was far more ubiquitous a crime. The murder in Waco was one man killing another and an athletic department that tried to fix it. This is one man affecting an entire damn society and an athletic department that tried to say it didn’t happen.

Baylor changed the way we think about people and college athletics.

This changes the way we think about everything.

In the last few days there have been a litany of bleary-eyed Nittany Lion alums stumbling through their lives, trying to make sense of what in the hell just took place. There are people who bought into this program and this man as a moral compass of sorts, who just had not only the rug, but the entire floor, pulled out from under them.

They were, as Joe Paterno said, “all fooled.”

I hope fans around the college football (and basketball) landscape learn from what just went down in State College though. I hope we use it as a teachable moment for our kids and an introspective look at ourselves.

As fans of our schools we think of the players as “our guys” and the coaches as these deified teachers that somehow affect not only our Saturdays, but also our Mondays and Tuesdays and Wednesdays by what they say and how they say it. We troll for quotes and lap them up when we find them like thirsty dogs needing to be satiated.

For whatever reason we seem to vicariously derive a lot of joy from the way 19-year old kids flip around a brown, oblong ball on the weekend and the way 45-year old men tell them to do it.

We think that makes them gods.

We think we know the players or coaches because Tom Rinaldi narrated 10 minutes of their lives, never stopping to remember that the entire thing is nothing more than a stage upon which performers are performing and entertainers are entertaining.

But we do not, in fact, know these people. We don’t know how they act when they’re alone or how they treat those around them. We are fans, removed from the situation, devoid of any real interaction. All of this is a game.

Do I love that Brandon Weeden interacts with fans on Twitter or that Mike Gundy kisses babies during the walk on gamedays? Absolutely. But just because you had a 280-character conversation with OSU’s quarterback and he retweeted you (or didn’t retweet you) doesn’t make him a good or bad guy. What ultimately matters is who he is to his wife and to his family and to his friends. And you are none of those things (unless @melanieweeden is reading this of course).

We all buy into this “but our school is different” and “but our guys are different” mantra and they might be, but they also might not be.

Penn State’s athletic department slogan is “success with honor.” And there are hundreds of heartbroken people who work in that building who never knew, who couldn’t have known. That’s the bottom line though, if they, as university employees, couldn’t possibly know, why do we as fans think we can? This guy didn’t know, and none of us ever will.

I don’t say all of this because I think Mike Gundy is classless or Justin Blackmon is a bad dude. In fact, I think just the opposite. I say it because I don’t want us to hope in the wrong things. I say it because I don’t think you should root for a team because its players are good or bad people.

Here’s why we should still root though, here’s why we are fans…

We root for OSU because it gives us an excuse to call our pops and talk for an hour on a Sunday afternoon. We root for them because I can’t think of anything more fun than vibrating Gallagher-Iba’s walls for two and a half hours on a Saturday night with 13,610 of our best friends. We root for them because it gives us a reason to descend upon Stillwater with people we haven’t seen in a year to talk and to catch up and to wish we were still in college.

But we should not root for them because we’re buying in to who they are as people. That’s not fair to us when human beings fall as human beings will, and take down our misplaced hopes and dreams with them. They are role models, yes, and should be held accountable, but you know what they say about fooling me twice…

We carry on as fans though, more wary than before, more jaded than ever. We carry on despite the fact that this world Ohio State and Miami and Penn State fans created for themselves has been shattered into a billion little pieces.

We continue to root for our schools because the thought of 60,000 people jumping up and down on the logo as December 3rd spills into December 4th and the alma mater fills the Stillwater sky just six years removed from a 4-7 season, well, that thought inspires us to believe that we can do things nobody else says we can do. It makes us believe in something bigger than what we amount to on our own.

We root for them, yes, but we do it for us.

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