A Healthy Beheading: Why Penn State Should Let Go of the Past

Perhaps you follow soccer. Perhaps you don't.

But even if you're in the latter group, there's a fair chance that you've heard of the massive institution that is the Rangers Football Club.

Rangers are the most successful club in Scottish history, having won the Scottish title 54 times, the Scottish Cup 33 times, the Scottish League Cup 27 times and the European Cup Winners’ Cup once. They claim millions of supporters around the world and hold a cultural, political and social significance that transcends the boundaries of sport so completely that it is not only fair but entirely accurate to say that Rangers aren't just a soccer club; rather, Rangers sit at the very center of life in the city of Glasgow — an institution that carries as much as weight, if not more, than the Scottish Parliament itself.

In other words, Rangers are a pretty big deal. Have been for a long time.

Yet as of today, Rangers are dead. Gone. A relic of the past.

And I can't help but wonder if Penn State would at this very moment count itself lucky to find itself in the same miserable position.

After 140 years and 54 Scottish titles and untold cultural and social and athletic battles waged both on the field and off, Rangers in early June were officially liquidated — a victim of fraudulent and borderline criminal financial mismanagement that ultimately left the club so deeply in debt that a legitimate buyer could not be found to save it.

The details of this once unimaginable crisis are still to be sorted out, and in the end, it's quite possible that a team by the name of "Rangers FC" will, in fact, be playing soccer in Scotland next season. But in a very real and, perhaps more importantly, a very legal sense, that new Rangers FC won't actually be Rangers FC. Because you see, the Rangers that were — the Rangers that built such a massive legacy and an even more massive fan base over 14 decades of unyielding success — ceased to exist the very moment that Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs rejected the club's best and yet still very lame bailout offer.

Yes, Rangers fans will still turn up for matches next season. Yes, they will still hate Celtic, their arch rivals from across town, and yes, they will still sing the songs they've always sung. They'll pregame in the same pubs that they've frequented for decades and they'll watch their Rangers play at the same venue that they've called home for the past 113 years, storied and occasionally tragic Ibrox Stadium.

But even as life continues as usual, Rangers fans will know it and Celtic fans will know it and every other team in the soccer world will know it: The new Rangers aren't the old Rangers.

And for Rangers fans, yeah, that will probably sting a bit — the fact that their most hated rivals and most giddy critics will know that the new iteration of Rangers FC will be but a phony facsimile of the real Rangers FC, and that all of the history and all of the accomplishments that their club had racked up over the previous century-plus will no longer theirs to claim at all.

In perfectly blunt terms, Rangers fans can expect nothing but a barrage of abuse, snickers, condescension and insults from now until damn near eternity.

But there are worse things in life. Worse things, indeed.

***

The Jerry Sandusky trial is over but the scandal at Penn State isn't. And as more and more sordid details come out about the university's abject failure to project innocent children from a deranged psychopath, I've been thinking more and more about the bizarre collapse of Rangers FC, and how it relates to what we're witnessing up in State College. Bear with me for a moment while I attempt, quite lamely, to connect these dots.

If I am to be completely honest, my recently developed obsession with soccer has an awful lot to do with my growing dissatisfaction with not just college football generally, but with Penn State football specifically.

You see, even before the Sandusky trial tore my alma mater to shreds, my love for Penn State football, and my love college football as a whole, had started to fade, in part because of the complete lack of ambition shown by the program and in part because, as a father of four young children, I simply had other hings to worry about. By the time the 2011 season kicked off, I must admit, my oldest son's travel soccer games and Little League baseball games had become a great deal more important to me than, say, Penn State-Temple.

And yet it is true that my attachment to this program and this sport endures. I cannot stop watching it, or loving it, or writing about it, because at the very center of my sporting life stands the great, historic game of college football — a game that has grown and evolved, sometimes awkwardly, right alongside modern America itself. No matter how hard the sport tries to destroy itself, and Lord knows it has tried its best of late, it has remained and will remain the sport I love above all others. Because quite frankly, it's the best sport we have.

So, yeah, I still care.

I still care about the game itself and I still care about my alma mater’s role in it.

I don’t want Penn State football to go away.

I don't want the many good people — yes, Buzz Bissinger and others, there are many good people up there — who have built this program into the massive sporting institution that is today to see the thing that they love and cherish crushed and destroyed and left for dead. Besides, no matter what some folks might tell you, what happened at Penn State is not the fault of "Penn State" as an institution or "Penn Staters" as a population, nor is it proof that "the culture of college football" is inherently corrupt and evil; rather what happened at Penn State was the fault of one evil man who leveraged his local fame to do awful things to innocents, and also the fault of a bunch of other men who dropped the ball in the most awful way possible. From what we know today, it seems that these guys had a chance to stop this. They just didn't.

If you critics want to say that those men acted the way they acted in order to protect Penn State football, go ahead; I no have proof to tell you they didn't. But please. Just don't make that next asinine leap to the idea that because those men screwed up, the rest of us — alumni, fans, students, local residents — are to blame as well. It may make you feel better about yourself when you spout this garbage, and it may get you more attention and more page views, but it’s still a complete bullshit argument — one that is insulting, and unfair and sickeningly opportunistic. That is the unvarnished truth.

And yet ...

Well, I would be lying to you if I said this Sandusky crap didn't disturb me deeply. Which is why I have sat here over the course of the past week wondering whether it might be best for Penn State football to follow the lead of Rangers FC and just go out of business.

Symbolically, at least.

***

Rangers were forced into their predicament — forced by the legal mechanizations of financial law in Scotland. They went bankrupt, nobody bailed them out, they went out of business. Simple, clean, painful. But blessedly swift. Like a beheading.

Up in Happy Valley, though, it's just not that simple. Already tried and convicted is Jerry Sandusky. To be tried later, it seems likely, are Tim Curley, Gary Schultz and quite possibly Graham Spanier; Joe Paterno, as we all know, has passed away. In other words, both Sandusky and the men who formed the core of the old Penn State have either already faced the music or will do so shortly.

As for the institution as a whole — and all of those either directly or indirectly linked to it — well, it continues to be judged by the media, and by opportunistic Twitter trolls, and by hacky radio show hosts-turned-Internet columnists. But in reality, and in a very legal sense, Penn State as an "institution" and Penn State as a "culture" aren't on trial at all. In part, this is because "the institution" and "the culture" are far too vague as entities to be linked to Sandusky's evil actions, and in part, because there simply isn't a way to put "the institution" or "the culture" before the court. The civil suits will come, sure. The investigations will continue. And yeah, Penn State should and will pay for its massive failures.

But unlike Rangers, and no matter how loud the critics howl, there won't come the moment that the legal powers-that-be step in and essentially pull the plug. There is no clear-cut end game. There is no beheading. Bankruptcy is black and white; massive institutional failure perpetrated by a small group of men that ultimately stains an entire culture simply isn't.

Which means, of course, that there really is no way to truly leave this sad and disturbing episode completely in the past. Penn State football, barring some unprecedented move by the NCAA or the Big Ten, will endure. The crowds will continue to pour in on autumn Saturdays, the fans will cheer as they've always cheered, and Beaver Stadium, Mount Nittany and all that is Penn State football will remain fixtures of our autumn Saturdays. Battered, bruised, embarrassed, shamed, the Penn State football program will continue to exist as one of the largest and most important programs in all of college football.

In other words, despite all that has happened and all that is yet to be revealed, the reality — fair or not — is that pretty much nothing tangible is going to change for Penn State football going forward.

Unless Penn State decides otherwise.

***

I don't want to assume for a moment that Rangers fans are the least bit happy with what has befallen their club. I am quite certain that as details regarding their future continue to be sorted out, those red-white-and-blue bedecked supporters are worrying, and worrying quite intently, about what the future might hold (or might not hold) for their storied and beloved club.

The very elements of their existence as a soccer club are in doubt. It is not clear whether they'll be playing in the Scottish Premier League next season. It's not clear who they're going play, or when. It's not clear if they're going to have enough money to pay their existing players, or have enough to buy new, less talented players. Essentially, Rangers are teetering on the abyss, contemplating a future that very well may see them playing in the lowest divisions of Scottish football — taking on a bunch of clubs comprised of semi-pros playing in the most meager and miserable of facilities.

So, yeah, things suck right now for Rangers.

But at least Rangers supporters have this: Closure. Complete and unquestioned closure.

All of the misdeeds and all of the mismanagement of the past have been exposed and, now, they have been punished, too. That part of Rangers history is over. And while it is certainly true that, in some way, all of the perceived glory of the past will forever be stained, and while it is also certainly true that nobody will ever look at Rangers with quite the same reverence as they used to, at the very least, this club and its fans have the chance now — the much-needed chance — to move forward, with a fresh clean slate and the opportunity to do better than they had done before. Whether or not they will do better remains to be seen. But at least they've got that chance.

As for Penn State? Well, even with the Sandusky trial over and done with, it will not have closure in the same way that Rangers has had closure. It's just not possible. And perhaps that's entirely deserved.

But Penn State does have an opportunity, I think, to at least symbolically make a break from the past.

The folks that run the university and the folks who run the football program have a chance to show the world that, yes, they do understand the enormity of the tragedy that unfolded there, that they do understand that things can't and won't ever be the same, and that while there were indeed a great many good things about Penn State and Penn State football for a long, long time, there were major flaws as well. Those flaws were terrible flaws indeed, and innocents suffered as a result.

So the break must be made.

***

At the very core of college football stand two mighty principals: History. And tradition.

These principals are the reason I love college football, and I'm assuming these same principals are the reason why you love college football as well. In an American sporting landscape where tradition and history are treated without the least bit of respect, in a nation where civic institutions such as the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cleveland Browns can just pack up and leave whenever they see fit, in a sports culture where professional sports "rivalries" have become so utterly meaningless that they are rivalries in name only, college football stands out as unique. It is the sport that not only cares about tradition and history, but thrives on tradition in history.

In college football, we obsess over our traditions. We have true and honest disdain for our rivals. We value our history because we know our history defines us — from the colors we wear to the songs we sing to the stadiums in which we play.

So it is for every program in America, and so it is, too, for Penn State.

But given what has happened, and given the failings of the system and the university and the football program and the handful of men who had a chance to stop it all, how can Penn State possibly move forward without some kind acknowledgment that what came before was so terribly and tragically flawed? How can we as Penn Staters possibly pretend, as the Rangers fans back in Scotland may do, that all that went down hasn't changed things forever? How can we keep on being the old Penn State, when what we need more than ever is to be the new Penn State?

I ask these questions because they need to be asked. I don't, however, pretend to have any answers.

I am confused as hell by this mess and I'm guessing you're confused as hell, too. My faith and loyalty to this institution have been shaken. I've never before felt so distant and so disconnected from it.

But every time I begin to wonder whether I should simply walk away, I quickly realize that I can't. At least not yet. Because I care too much, and despite what the outsiders might say, I know that there always has been good and always will be good in this university, this community, this program. Now, it's simply a matter of finding that good, showcasing that good, building on that good.

So I search for answers. I search for solutions. Even when they aren't easy ones.

Which brings me to this: Part of me believes very deeply that the most powerful thing Penn State could do in this awful time in its history is to sever itself almost completely from the lingering sad legacies of the past. Part of me believes that Penn State football must make a clean break from the things that it has held onto so closely forever — its colors, its uniforms, its traditions — if only because these things now carry the symbolism of sadness and failure. Part of me believes that the only way that anyone outside of the world of Penn State will ever take Penn State seriously again is if they look at Penn State’s most public face — its football program — and see nothing that they recognize as Penn State at all. So part of me believes that Penn State will only be ready to move forward if and when the old Penn State is left for dead just like the old Rangers have been left for dead.

No, the past must not be forgotten, of course; to do so would be irresponsible.

But the program and the university we loved were not necessarily what we thought they were. Of this, there is no doubt.

So perhaps we are best served to go ahead and close the book on that chapter—a long chapter, I understand—in our still-unfolding history.

Perhaps it would not be quite so painful to leave the baggage — the good, the bad, the ugly, the tragic — of that past behind.

Perhaps it would not be the worst thing in the world to say good-bye to the Penn State that was—the records, the history, the uniforms, the "brand" — and move forward with the Penn State that should be.

Perhaps it would not be so difficult to just let go of ... well, everything. Everything that was, at least.

Because, given the awful situation in which we find ourselves, perhaps we have no other choice.

A swift clean break may not be painless. But it may be exactly what we need.

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