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Penn State: Playing Without Fans

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As a casual Penn State football fan, I balked at the firing of coach Joe Paterno last fall. I told myself that it was only fair to give him the benefit of the doubt. But when the Freeh report unequivocally implicated Paterno and his cohorts in covering up the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal, I was ready to grab a pitchfork, join the mob, and go after the entire Penn State football program with a vengeance.

But addressing the "culture of reverence" surrounding the program won't be as easy as removing the perpetrators. The problem runs deeper than any one individual, the coaching staff, or even the university's administration. The way football at Penn State is perceived needs to fundamentally change.

How tough of a task will making that change be? As late as last week, school officials were still attempting to shield the program. When the university's board of trustees met to debate the future of the Joe Paterno statue outside the football stadium, the discussion was not driven by sense of responsibility to the victims, but was rather it "centered on how the NCAA [would] interpret whatever decision [was] made."

The NCAA's response to the scandal was a commendable attempt at behavior modification. The punishment handed down was unprecedented: a $60 million fine, a four year ban on bowl game appearances, a reduction of the number of football scholarships, and the vacancy of over a quarter of Paterno's wins. But I fear the effects may only be temporary because the penalties leave the football culture largely unscathed. Students will still be able to attend games, boosters will continue to donate, and millions will watch on TV. Soon enough, the scandal will blow over.

If lasting reform is to be implemented, Penn State will have to reign in the football culture itself. A daunting challenge, no doubt, but there are ways to do it. One option would be to self impose the so-called "death penalty" (i.e. banning the football program). However, this too would side step the broader issue by putting a disproportionate amount of the punishment on current or incoming student-athletes.

What officials could do instead is, for at least one season, let the football team play, but ban spectators. Close home games to fans, television crews, boosters etc. Do not allow pep-rallies, tailgate parties, Paternoville camps, nothing. Shutting down the football culture would spread the burden of responsibility across the Penn State community, making it much harder to shrug off.

This type of punishment has precedent elsewhere in the world. In the 1990s, a Greek basketball team had to play an entire season without spectators due to rowdy fans. Earlier this year the premier Egyptian soccer league played behind closed doors after deadly riots.

Many might argue that, unlike the unruly fans who got their comeuppance, Penn State supporters should not to be punished for the actions of a few administrators. But in reality, anyone who ever chanted the "We are... Penn State" slogan was, however remotely, complicit in fueling the university's rampantly powerful football program. The results are now horrifically evident.

It got to the point where so much was thought to be at stake that merely the risk of the football program's public image being tarnished prompted administrators to protect a now convicted child rapist for over a decade. An environment where something like that can occur is profoundly out of balance.

Forcing the Penn State community to take a temporary break from football is sure to be an unpopular move, but it could do a world of good. Imagine how much more time and energy could be spent studying, working, socializing, or reflecting on how grossly pervasive the football culture had become over Paterno's 45 year tenure. If you choose to do the latter, I'd suggest you start by listening to This American Life's sober perspective on the Animal House like party culture that grew up around football.

After a year or two, people will hopefully return to Beaver Stadium with not only a renewed appreciation for the game of football, but also the collective expectation that it never again be placed on such a high pedestal.

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