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Grappling With The Complicated Narrative Of Penn State's Success

by on November 28, 2016 2:55 PM

As the clock expired Saturday night Penn State players stormed the field and Beaver Stadium erupted into cheers, the Nittany Lions capping off a 10-2 regular season with a 45-12 victory over Michigan State.

More importantly a trip to the Big Ten title game was no longer a possibility. It was a reality.

But something about the celebration felt tentative, the Land Grant Trophy so large and cumbersome that team managers wheeled it to the Penn State sideline in a laundry basket. One player asked after the game if "that was it?" when he got to see the Big Ten East Division trophy.

The Nittany Lions had plenty to celebrate, but it felt obligatory, lacking the same pure rush of emotions that have coursed through most of the season. There was no last second drama, no unexpected turn of events, just yet another win for team that hasn't lost in months.

In its own way, the deserved but still somewhat reserved celebration is the embodiment of a larger picture. Penn State is stepping back out into the light of college football, but what is being celebrated and what that means for those looking on, both fan and critic, is a complicated dilemma.

On paper Penn State is in the midst of a comeback, but to simply call it that is an incomplete and nuance-free summation of events. Penn State has returned to -- at least temporary-- national relevance, but comebacks, or even the implied feeling of overcoming adversity fails to recognize that Penn State's situation was almost entirely self-inflicted.

It implies that Penn State was wronged, regardless of the fact that the NCAA probably shouldn't have ever sanctioned Penn State in the first place. Whether or not Penn State administrators intentionally or unknowingly covered up Jerry Sandusky's acts and their subsequent handling of that knowledge is irrelevant. Penn State will never be the victim, it will have always failed intentionally or not, to have lived up to some of the most basic and fundamental obligations as a place of higher education. Penn State will, for the duration of its existence have a scar that will never fully heal and never fully be forgotten and never should be.

So to say Penn State football is on a heroic path back to its former glory is to in many ways say that the sins have been forgotten and that the more important business of winning is finally front and center. The result is a predictable reaction across the nation that Penn State's success in and of itself and the enjoyment of that success is to disregard the events of 2011 and the events that led to that moment. It creates a very black and white scenario, another division across an already divided landscape.

But that is in itself only a partial assessment of reality.

Because Penn State fans and players and coaches are in themselves a much better gauge of what Penn State truly is and where it is going.

Take for example three Penn State freshmen standing outside the Bryce Jordan Center late on Sunday night. They and their friends are third in a line that extends as far as the eye can see behind them. Down the street it winds, around the corner and down the hill, some 175 tents, even more students simply waiting without one. All just hoping for a ticket to the Big Ten Title game.

"I wasn't a Penn State fan growing up," one remarked. "I liked Notre Dame."

The other two are more predictably born and bred, both from eastern PA, both with a familiarity with Penn State long before they ever made it to campus.

"I heard about (the scandal) when my family got off of a cruise." mentioned one in reflection. "But I don't remember lots about it."

"I hear about it all the time." said another, an active Twitter user. "But I wasn't here for it. I still have to defend myself though."

Their names are Liz, Marley and Nick but their stories are found all down the line of students waiting for tickets. Ninety tents behind that trio are a collection of seven or so friends who have never camped out before at Nittanyville. They simply decided that the moment had gotten too big to pass up. The scandal, it's something that happened, but they missed it, they missed the Paterno era.

The disconnect between the two is noticeable, almost a forced narrative that Paterno's presence is a daily part of life. Yes Penn State honored him earlier this season, but it quickly becomes apparent that most everyone, especially of the most relevant age in a college setting, lacks any strong opinion about a man they know in concept but peripherally at best.

These kids almost unanimously just want to root for their school's football team, and that's about it. 

"This is a once in a lifetime experience" they all agreed in unison.

So they wait.

Even farther down the line near on the very edge of the impromptu village are two girls in lawn chairs both covered in blankets drinking coffee. They sit, watching the buses drive by right past them, too familiar with the road having driven three hours from a different Penn State campus to try and get tickets. They both know they might not get them, the line is simply too long. But they had to try, your team doesn't go 10-2 very often. One of them knows next to nothing about the scandal, the other just too cold to even talk.

As the crowd continues to grow James Franklin himself appears out of his black SUV and nearly everyone within eyesight runs to get his picture. They enjoyed their moment and then leave to get back to anything they can find to keep themselves warm. A propane fire pit crackles, a TV is showing "Superbad," a huddled group of girls laugh at a text message. Minutes later Franklin waves goodbye, gets back into his car and drives off into the night. Franklin himself has looked forward, not back, avoiding, by and large, opportunities to address the past beyond broad strokes. It isn't his battle and he doesn't want it to be.

A lot has been written about Penn State over the years, perhaps in large part because it was supposed to be the best of both worlds. The light at the top of the mountain. Successful athletics coupled with academics and ethics. While for the most part Penn State has always been that kind of place and continues to be, the Sandusky scandal rocked a collective belief that the system was working.

That if athletics, even for the slightest second, took precedence over the safety of children, that maybe we had all lost our way far worse than we ever imagined. Sports have always been aware of their inflated self-worth and importance, but it so often is a controlled inflation, staying within certain ethical parameters. The scandals like that at Penn State and Baylor are outliers, although no less important in reminding everyone what actual is.

So as Penn State seemingly rises from the ashes of its own creation there is a collective hesitancy, a holding of the breath as everyone processes the response. What exactly is the moral of the story? Was the lesson learned? Celebrating Penn State's return is a difficult balance between addressing where it went, how it got there and the realization that colleges are fluid institutions best represented by the people of the present not the ghosts of their pasts.

Fittingly, this Penn State team may just be the one to teach that moral. That maybe the system still works just fine, but like all systems it needs to be reset from time to time.

Because this Penn State football team is in many ways a lot of the things college athletics aspires to be. Penn State's best player is as talented on the field as he is thoughtful and honest off of it. Its best tight end is the story of never giving up and overcoming obstacles. Its defense is a lesson in perseverance and its quarterback is a masterclass on toughness. Academics are as good, if not better than most, and the relationship with the community is a positive one lacking the almost obligatory college town headlines.

If the NCAA sanctions were in place to knock Penn State down a few pegs they succeeded, but those same sanctions have also created a team that exemplifies the good in college football when the system works.

Some people will never like Penn State and never forget, and that is probably a burden Penn State will always deserve to carry and maybe something that will always keep it grounded.

But as Penn State takes the field in Indianapolis on Saturday night it will be doing so in front of students who just want to have fun in college, fans who largely just want to see their alma mater win and as a team that has in many measurable facets exemplified the better things in college athletics.

And so while Penn State may never fully regain the trust and standing it once had as one of college football's shining lights, the success of 2016 might just be a sign that the system failed, but that it can be fixed, and that it isn't broken.

And maybe that's something to celebrate.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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