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Op-Ed: Penn State Football Fans Still In Denial

(CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES)

(CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES)

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By Joseph Santoliquito

State College, PA (CBS) — Nothing much has really changed. The decorum and colors are still the same, a sea of mobile homes and tents bearing flags, barbeques billowing smoke, everything blue-and-white for as far as the eye can gather, and the country’s best tailgaters getting an early lather on at 10 in the morning.

From the outside looking in (and anyone bearing a pad, pen and microphone would certainly fall under that definition as “outsiders”), it seems like any other Penn State football home opener. Only that the game didn’t count, and the games won’t count toward anything real—toward a Big 10 or NCAA national championship—for another three years.

Still, most Penn State revelers didn’t seem to care. They moved blindly into Beaver Stadium, sans the 900-pound bronze statue of Joe Paterno that once greeted them and reminded them all why they gathered here in the first place—and the virtuous tradition the late Paterno once espoused.

Now it’s all gone.

Except for the faithful. Still early to arrive. Still dedicated. Still firm in their belief that they received the most unjust ruling the NCAA ever handed down. Still unwilling to move from that stance. Still easily aroused when things like “Sandusky,” “Freeh Report,” and “NCAA” are broached.

And still seemed to be in denial about what transpired here over the last nine months.

“Hey buddy, ‘F— you!’ and you can stick that microphone up your a– along with it,” said one middle-aged man with a touch of white on his short, closely cropped hair to a reporter who asked a question about Penn State football.

“You people did this to Penn State, the media made this bigger than it was, and you need to leave it alone. It’s over, done with!” the angry fan said, shaking his head while walking away.

Yes, the NCAA levied a heavy, unprecedented sanction against Penn State taking away scholarships, previous victories, pulling down Joe Paterno literally and figuratively as if he was Saddam Hussein from his concrete perch because of the ineffaceable stain left by the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal.

But at the root at the very cause of the sanctions was the “culture.” This idea that an unholy marriage existed between faithful fans, coaches and administration to a college football program superseded ethics and justice—or what the Louis Freeh Report stated as “a culture of reverence.”

As fans trudged into Beaver Stadium on a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon against the visiting Ohio Bobcats, the biggest concern was that another Nittany Lions’ season was about to begin and that everything thrown at the Penn State program still hovered.

The NCAA barred the Nittany Lions from postseason play for the next four years, and beginning in 2013, Penn State will lose 10 scholarships annually through the 2016-17 academic year, and was nailed with a $60 million fine. Also gone are 111 victories from Paterno’s once-record 409 victories.

The Big 10 piled on with its own reprimand, denying Penn State close to $13 million in revenue over four years, the money earmarked to helping victims of abuse.

The program has been shredded into shambles and its fans still in disbelief. What appears, however, is the remnants of the culture that created this debacle.

“We’re Penn State and we’ll always be Penn Staters, regardless of anything the NCAA or the media says,” said a girl who identified herself as Caroline, a Penn State junior. “The kids at this school will always love the football program. I think it is the way people still identify themselves. This whole thing has made us stronger.”

A number of fans were wearing white t-shirts that said, “We are ‘still’ Penn State.”

“You know it’s okay for people from Alabama, or Nebraska, or Michigan to follow their team, for college football to be their ‘religion,’ but it’s not okay for us makes no sense,” said Bob Simmons, a Penn State graduate in his mid-40s. “There was something bad that happened here, but no one ever wanted to look further that it had nothing to do with the football program. It had nothing to do with football.”

As game time approached the crescendo seemed to roar louder, and louder, “We are Penn State, we are Penn State, we are Penn State.” It became deafening by kickoff. Chants for new Penn State coach “Bill O’Brien, Bill O’Brien” could also be heard washing over the rim of Beaver Stadium.

A new era began at Penn State, the Bill O’Brien Era. But the “culture of reverence” that came under the national microscope still seems to be very alive and vibrant in large corners of State College.

Though everything surrounding Penn State appeared normal, in the end, there was one seismic shift of the culture on the field: Ohio beat Penn State for the first time in school history, 24-14, after the Nittany Lions blew an 11-point halftime lead. Fans began filtering out of Beaver Stadium near the end of the fourth quarter, and as the final seconds ticked away, there were the faint cries of “We are Penn State.”

(Disclaimer: Joseph Santoliquito is a sports blogger. His articles to do not reflect the opinions of CBSPhilly.com.)