The White Out: A Sign Of Unity, A Big Tent

This weekend the Penn State White Out should remind us that WE ARE a Big Tent with room for all. We’ve always been that way. But after a contentious few weeks that have seen social media and internet sniping between fans as well as some between players and fans we need to remember that we’re all on the same team.

And win or lose the White Out should show the country our unity of purpose, our pride in all that Penn State is, all that it has been and all that it will be. Saturday night should be a four-act drama driven by a passion to win that comes from everyone there.

With a whole lot of football left to be played it’s time to put any divisions away. But to do that, there needs to be some understanding.

This is to promote understanding for those who’ve been upset about changes at Penn State and understanding for those offended by reactions to those changes. Charges of racism have been thrown back and forth to label what is generally a generational or stylistic divide.

On one hand you’ve had people upset that players are imitating Miami’s turnover chain with a touchdown chain. To many Penn State fans a garish display highlighting an individual flies in the face of the nameless jerseys designed to emphasis the importance of team. Those fans’ disdain for Miami is rooted in an epic showdown for the 1986 National Title that was a dramatic clash of styles. That is the vantage point from which some of these fans still view things. Their feelings aren't wrong, it is part of who they are.

As fans expressed their discontent on social media it prompted reactions from players on their social media accounts. But did these players understand how these fans stood by Penn State through really tough times when most of the world was stacked against us? Maybe, maybe not.

Another fan wrote a letter to one player suggesting that he cut his hair, and complaining about tattoos and players’ on-field antics. That letter was shared on social media creating a multi-day national news cycle and prompting a host of statements by administrators, coaches and other players defending the player against a cultural or racial bias that was accepted as fact.

But what all coaches, administrators and players should understand, it does you no good to get into a public fight with loyal fans. Especially when you have fans who've stuck with you through the good and the bad. Public confrontation does not win over people who have long-held feelings they believe are legitimate.

And nasty letters are not new. When we played black quarterbacks across the early 1970s through the 2000s correspondence laced with racial slurs was sent to us as well as to our players. But we did not use it to express a blanket condemnation of every fan who didn't like the quarterback we were playing. We helped our players understand that the world is filled with complicated people who will harbor and express hateful views we don't like. Our players chose to win people over by their actions on and off the field.

Was this letter writer’s intent racist? It’s possible. Could it have been more of a generational divide? That is entirely possible too. Fairness must allow for either possibility.

There is a lesson here. No matter what you do in life when you step into the public eye and create change, there will be people who will criticize you. It’s a part of life and the best approach is to try understanding the other’s point of view, no matter how flawed we may believe it to be.

But instead what came back from some was a suggestion that people longing for the “old days” should either stop being racists or get on board with the new generation or root for a new team or go yell at people to get off their lawn.

But “go away old man” or inferring racism is a response lacking context and perspective of Penn State’s history. But fans stating a blanket condemnation of all the new changes also lack understanding.

To the older generations you face a choice in a time of change. You don’t have to agree with it, you don’t have to like it. But don’t judge the younger generation simply because of appearance, or because they want to do something new and different.

It is like looking at your own children or grandchildren. They will do things and act in ways that are different than what you may be used to. Always remember young people will react to whatever standards are set by the coaches.

Penn State Coach Rip Engle used to tell his coaches “Don’t bitch about the kids. They’re the only ones we’ve got.”

That’s good advice for 2019. At the end of the day the players are family and Penn State is home. The decisions have been made to turn the page. If you want to walk away from all that, there is nothing anyone can do to stop you.

But where else can you go? This is where your memories of reside. On that gridiron walked giants of men who inspired us all. Show those men of our proud past that your loyalty goes beyond temporary changes in a world where the pendulum is always swinging back and forth. Those men of Penn State’s past stood together in turbulent times. We owe them something for what they gave us.

On the other side, what the “new generation” crowd should understand is for that one letter-writer there are likely many others who feel the same way. Assuming that this letter writer is an outlier is a mistake. Don’t be misled because a social media majority appears to be on your side. When you’re 6-0 everyone wants to be on your side.

Those “old” fans enjoyed many years when Penn State had a certain differential. Players carried themselves a certain way on and off the field and that approach was unique. The team traveled to away games in coats and ties. The players had to shave, had to cut their hair, handed the ball to the official and were told to stay away from taunting and in your face antics. And that ideal attracted a lot of recruits to this program. It also attracted a lot of fans to Penn State.

Now these fans expressing their desire to keep old standards are being labeled as racist or behind the times.

Long ago the idea behind the Penn State standard came from the New York Yankees. And despite Joe Paterno’s dislike for the Yankees (he was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan) he admired the concept. And so he asked all his players, regardless of race, to make sacrifices to be part of a team. Playing at Penn State was a privilege not a right. When players were recruited they were told they would be asked to give up individual preferences to be part of something transcendent. Of note to those who say you can’t do that anymore, the Yankees still demand those standards in 2019.

And that differential was appreciated by the fan base. For those fans the past is a big part of their lives, a part they love. To them Penn State was an ideal and the physical embodiment of that ideal was in the things that made us different.

This fan base has seen chunks of their proud history discounted by lies and now largely ignored by many of the College Football 150th anniversary shows and commemorations. Many of them still feel betrayed because some refused to defend their school.

So if you are part of the new generation crowd, understand for some a shift in the standards is no small thing on top of everything else they've endured. To the new school advocates, respect the past and respect these people who have been here for a long time through ups an downs. Understand that they may choose to write a letter or say something that strikes you as offensive.

But don’t be so quick to assume intent. All of us could stand to improve on that. Assumption of intent never promotes understanding; rather it promotes distrust and builds walls between us. With all the divisions we face as a society we need more empathy and understanding no matter how challenging it may be.

And among Penn State fans, it’s time to stop the back and forth over old versus new. Allow older fans time to adjust with the realization that adjustment to change is never perfectly smooth. Allow the younger generation their time for they too will someday realize how quickly it all flies by. We're all in this together, we are all Penn Staters coming to this with our different perspectives but bound by a common love of place.

Above all this Saturday night turn your attention to your foe, get back in the Big Tent of the Penn State Whiteout and together blow the roof off against Michigan.

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