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Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Role of Fans in the Penn State Scandal

     Although I prefer the Pittsburgh Steelers to other NFL teams, watch PGA golf during the winter months, and enjoy HBO and ESPN boxing, I cannot call myself a real sports fan. I guess I'm a little defensive about this because not being an avid fan is kind of un-American. I just can't imagine myself waving a terrible towel, painting my face team colors, or having my day ruined because the Steelers lost a game. ( While this probably reveals a latent cruel streak,I've often wondered what it feels like for face-painters leaving the stadium after their team has lost.) Outside my dentist's office, I've never leafed through a "Golf Digest" or "Sports Illustrated." (Coming across one of these publications in Barnes and Noble conjurs up bad memories.) If it weren't for the fast-forward control, I wouldn't watch any sports on TV. Golf announcers--I guess they prefer sports broadcasters--are really annoying with their slobbering Tiger Woods hero-worship, and their obsession with the mechanics of the golf swing. (I doubt that people who actually play golf understand any of that golf swing terminology. No kidding, it's brutal.) And the golfers themselves hang over putts longer that it will take me to write this blog. Now that I think about it, why do I watch golf at all?

     While I'm obviously not an avid sports fan, I'm fascinated with fandom itself. The subject interests me because I've never really understood it. Peter Abrahams' 1995 book "The Fan," is one of my favorite novels. In this beautifully written, tightly plotted story, the fan, in the person of Gil Renard, is fixated on a slugger with the Chicago White Sox. As the plot unfolds, the unemployed knife salesman turns from an obessive fan into a murderous maniac. In the 1996 film version, Renard, a rabid San Francisco Giants fan, is played by Robert De Niro.

     The Penn State scandal, besides the horrors of child molestation, is also about the nature of sports fandom in America. Except for the victims, all of the main characters are former athletes and coaches. And the alleged crimes have scandalized and demoralized tens of thousands of Penn State football fans. In the sports world, no fans are more avid than Penn State supporters. Many of them are worried that the sex scandal will cost the team a prestigious postseason bowl game invitation. The school could end up playiing in the--this is no joke--Mieneke Car Care Bowl in Houston.This devotion to sports presents an interesting but difficult question: had Jerry Sandusky been a history professor instead of a Penn State football coach, how long would it have taken for someone to report him to the authorities? And once reported, how long would it have taken to get him indicted? Thirty-five years?

     According to a recent poll, 51 percent of Pennsylvanians still have a positive view of former coach Joe Paterno. Twenty-one percent aren't sure how they feel about him. Of the men polled, 59 percent still support the coach. Only 3 percent have a positive view of Jerry Sandusky, the alleged child molester Paterno failed to report to the police. Thirty-eight percent don't even think Paterno should have been fired. On that issue seventeen percent aren't sure.

     The only way I can make sense of the above statistics is in the context of sports fandom. Penn State football fans have loved Joe Paterno for making their lives as football fans so rich and fulfilling. If he and Jerry Sandusky had been history professors, they would have been run out of town on a rail, and we wouldn't be talking about the story. In American, I don't think you can under estimate the power of fandom. That's what makes it so fascinating for people like me.         

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