I had been planning to go to the Penn State-Nebraska game this weekend for several months. I have a good friend who attended PSU and I had yet to go up there myself for a game. When Occupy Herbstreit took off, my anticipation for the game grew larger, thinking it would be a great atmosphere to feed off for sign ideas. After Penn State’s thrilling win over Illinois, we even thought there was an outside chance College Gameday would make an appearance, before Nebraska eventually lost to Northwestern. And then everything changed.
I had no idea what to expect when I arrived Saturday morning. What I found was a campus and collection of fans unquestionably damaged by the events of this scandal, but trying to remain proud of this affiliation which has played such a central role in their life. There were the students outside of the stadium with their signs soliciting donations to assist the battle against child abuse. There were the loud cheers for the seniors playing in their last home game, who had nothing to do with any of the accusations surrounding the program. There was the simple but poignant hand-made sign hanging in the row in front of our seats, “THIS WILL NOT DEFINE US”. That sign said much in few words. While this scandal has hurt everyone involved in different ways, there was a passion to remain resilient to its impact and a struggle to rectify its damage.
This story has made many of us question what role being a sports fan should play in our lives. As many have said, this story makes it clear that some things are larger than sports. I don’t disagree with this, but as a fan myself, I see the essential role that it can play in many of our lives. It bonds us with friends and family. It gives us a great highs and heart-wrenching lows to celebrate or commiserate with complete strangers. And sometimes, unexpectedly, it can give us much more.
To be honest, up until kickoff, I wasn’t even sure I should be at Penn State this weekend. I felt like an interloper, someone with no connection to the program or game, appearing at this difficult time, like someone crashing the funeral of a stranger. This feeling continued through the pre-game ceremonies, as I politely clapped for the seniors, listened to the National Anthem and participated in the moment of silence for the victims of sexual abuse. And then something revelatory occured. To what I imagine must have been the surprise to almost everyone in attendance, instead of preparing for the start of the game, the two teams walked to the center of the field and all bent down in prayer. A hush filled the stadium. This surprising quiet, unlike a planned moment of silence, struck us all. In our society, it is almost impossible to have moments of unexpected reflection. We are constantly interacting with the world around us, be it with other people in real life, communicating using our technology, listening to TV, surfing the internet, etc, etc. This unplanned opportunity for all of us to reflect on the events of the past week, without taking a side in a debate or arguing your own opinion in some manner, finally allowed the cathartic release of how truly tragic this was for everyone, be they Penn State supporters, sports fans in general, or just members of the human race. The eyes of many of those around me teared up. It is difficult to describe to anyone not in attendance, but it was one of the most moving moments I have ever participated in. It made us all realize that everyone in that stadium of 107,000 was trying to process this individually, but none of us was alone in doing so. We were all people trying to deal with the sometimes horrific behavior of man and what it meant.
So yes, sports can be a great diversion from real life. And most of the time the collective experience is simply one of cheering for your chosen team against another collection of athletes and fans. But sometimes, the collective experience can impact all of us in an unplanned, healthy, non-competitive way that makes our lives more meaningful for having experienced it. I was expecting to leave Happy Valley sad that we perhaps do put sports on too high a pedestal in our lives. And we should examine what role that may have played in this tragedy. However, as a sports fan, I feel reaffirmed that sports is one of the few mediums where individuals from all backgrounds can come together and experience something moving and powerful that makes us all reflect upon who we are and what it means.
Once again, a hearty thank you to all of our fans, and anyone who has made it this far reading my thoughts on what this weekend meant to me. If you care to support us in our fight against the sexual abuse of children, please donate to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network at http://rainnmakers.rainn.org/occupyherbstreit. We all need to feel something positive after this, and this is our way of doing our part.