Penn State is a cult and we don’t care
But we’re not the only party town with a football problem
I would like to preface this article by saying in all likelihood nothing I say is going to be Earth-shattering or particularly insightful. If I come off as pretentious, that wasn’t really the goal.
Penn State is a cult.
Well, if you want to get technical and deal with the nuances of semantics, Penn State is cult-like is a better description.
We are surrounded by cornfields and farms, which in turn are surrounded by mountains. We live in the location of a Stephen King novel. The identity of the town we live in, State College, is informed by Penn State. On the University Park campus and around the town of State College you will find an almost unescapable obsession with sports, football in particular. On College Avenue you can’t pass more than four stores without finding a place dedicated to selling Penn State, usually football themed, merchandise.
You will find clothing, sandwiches, murals and signs that memorialize our football team and Joe Paterno. One of the well known and revered symbols of Penn State, The Nittany Lion Shrine, has the word Shrine is in its name; you do not need to be a theologian to see the inherent connection to religion.
“We are Penn State,” is what we chant when we attend college sporting events and when when we drink way too much, things we engage in regularly. I’ve heard us described as a party town with a football problem, but in my experience either one is interchangeable. Our identity is informed by many factors such as drinking and THON, but chief among them are football and out sports programs.
That’s nothing new, nor are we even unique in that way. Other universities, including other schools with NCAA Division I football teams, and America hold football and sports to a regard that is probably only matched by the rest of the worlds love of soccer. Football is a part of many college’s unique cultures and identities, and the Collegiate Licensing Company represented universities that sell the most merchandise, all have Division I football teams. Of top 25 Universities on the CLC’s list Penn State hasn’t made it into the top 10 since 2009. An institution with 20 campuses and over 90,0000 students in our system at any given time was outsold by Notre Dame which has about 12,000 students. Of course there are other alumni, sports fans and others contribute to merchandise sales. What is clear is that football and sports programs seem to be a major source of pride.
Referring to Penn State as a cult didn’t really become widespread until 2011, after the Jerry Sandusky Scandal broke. I mean it’s not like we were the only school that was really into their school’s sports programs. Remember when University of Alabama built a statue honoring their head football Coach Nick Saban in 2010, only three years after hiring him for the position.
You will find casual comparisons to our football fans to cults, but our apparent reverence for our football program is what came to define Penn State during the scandal. Those involved with the cover-up tried to protect the reputation of Penn State’s football program, instead of protecting children. The result was in the public eye Penn State was a cult that valued football above everything else.
I was still in high school when the scandal broke. It was a difficult period of time for both Penn State students and alumni, one I can’t pretend to have experienced or say I fully understand what it was like. I know the way Penn State was seen changed drastically. I can’t talk about how things have changed since the scandal, because I don’t know what things were like before the scandal broke. However, what I still see is a major focus on sports.
It’s not like we are the only college to ever suffer a scandal though either, we certainly were not the first to suffer a scandal related to out football program, nor are we the first to have a scandal because of a cover-up. Hiding the truth to protect your identity and reputation is something that is all too human.
Penn State is a cult and it has everything to do with football and our sports program. But part of that is fueled not by blind faith but unwavering school spirit. And acting like we are the only one is pure hypocrisy.