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We are More Than Our Scandals: A Letter to Penn Staters

by on July 18, 2012 6:00 AM

Dear Penn Staters,

I did not go to Penn State and have no current connection to the university aside from enjoying the culture and activities it provides to the area. Despite growing up in Pennsylvania, I ended up at Florida State University in Tallahassee after a family move.

I graduated in 1997, but several years before I arrived at FSU, some members of the Seminole football team were given free shoes from agents. As of last year, this was considered one of the worst scandals in sports history.

It’s silly compared to the magnitude of a real scandal, but Florida State was saddled with the nickname Free Shoes University. During my time at FSU, I knew very little about the shoe situation and cared about it even less. As far as I was concerned, it was a minor problem that had nothing to do with me. I cheered on the football team and went about my studies.

But then I left the relative seclusion of my university, where the shoes were a non-issue that no one bothered to talk about. I soon found out, though, that it was a big issue to other people. Upon interviewing for jobs, about half of the managers I met with brought it up in a joking manner as they reviewed my background.

“I see you went to Free Shoes University. What’s up with that?” Aside from an awkward smile and a nod, I really didn’t know how to respond. I was continually surprised to learn that I was being judged based on something my school’s football team did before I even went there.

I can’t even imagine what judgments and questions you will be facing in the next few years.

The argument has been made that what happened at Penn State is not a football problem. I agree with that. I believe it is a reflection of institutional and societal negligence. But that’s another column for another day.

What happened at Florida State, on the other hand, was simply a football problem. Yet, I, an English major whose closest interaction with the football team was sitting across from Warrick Dunn in the Tallahassee airport, often get lumped in with the stereotype some people have of Florida State. It doesn't happen often anymore, but about once a year I'll meet someone who, through the course of casual conversation, brings up the free shoes when I mention that I went to Florida State.

Just like me and the free shoes, the vast majority of Penn Staters had absolutely nothing to do with the Sandusky scandal. But, like me, you will be judged and connected to the scandal, possibly for decades.

No matter what you are told, remember this: You are no more to blame for what happened in that locker room than I am for the shoes I keep hearing about.

But there are people you will encounter who will only think about Jerry Sandusky when you tell them you went to Penn State. They will make assumptions about you and about the tragedy that happened here based only on a brief, usually scathing, news report that labeled all Penn Staters as enablers.

They will not know about the money you raised for THON, or the student-created Blue Out that is increasing awareness for child sexual abuse, or the recent scientific breakthroughs that may help find a cure for cancer. They won't care about the hundreds of other academic and research achievements that Penn State is making right now, some of which you may be involved in.

They will think only about Sandusky. It’s unfair, but it’s going to happen.

I don't have any advice about how to respond. But you can help build the narrative yourself by pointing out the things that make Penn State great, things like the strong academic history, medical and scientific accomplishments, child abuse prevention initiatives, and the intangible spirit that is Penn State.

Be ready for the critics. Read the Freeh report. Then read it again. Form your own conclusions, but stay away from the hundreds of news articles that have been written about it. The speculations and assumptions will only make you mad. Trust me.

Don’t believe what they say about you. The people who really count will not judge you on the actions or inactions of your alma mater.

Above all else, remember that your degree is worth no less today than it was two weeks ago or a year ago. You should be proud of your education.

You are Penn State, not them. Not the administrators, not the coaches, not the countless members of the media who are pointing fingers in your direction. You can, and should, be proud to be a Penn Stater.

Recent columns:

Holly Swanson is a State College-based freelance writer. She is on Twitter @statecollegemom and can be reached via email at [email protected]
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