Sugar-Coating Lessons from the Past

This weekend, I picked up a copy of “The Opening Kickoff: The Tumultuous Birth of a Football Nation” by BTN studio host Dave Revsine. With tonight’s Hall of Fame game set to usher in another season of pro football and just under 30 days until the Lions kick off the James Franklin era in Ireland, the air is again thick with rumor of America’s Game. August in Happy Valley is a time fraught with nervous anticipation, one of my favorite times of year, and I look forward to spending a few of those days caught between Summer and Fall reading through Revsine’s book.

This isn’t a book review. I’ve barely started reading it, and besides, if I’m on here plugging books, it should be the excellent, value-priced collection available through Nittany Valley Press. But Revsine’s thesis reminded me of aspirations we have for Nittany Valley Press, and with college football season, a special and important time for Penn State and State College, so close, it offered me a chance to explain a bit more about what we are building. I’ll quote from the introduction:

“[Now] is a period, we’ve been told, unprecedented in the history of that sport. But what if I told you that it did have precedent? In fact, what if I told you that the current problems in college football might actually be viewed as an improvement–that, in some regards, the college game was once far worse than it is today?

“Those who wonder why we can’t ‘just go back to the way it used to be,’ might be surprised to find that, in fact, we have.”

So Revsine’s book is, in part, a history of the early years of intercollegiate football (a fascinating topic if you love the game and enjoy learning about the past) and, like most good sports books, also a love note from the author for an institution that has profoundly impacted lives. Moreover, it is, in practice, a direct argument for the value of collective memory, aiming to equip modern fans with the enhanced perspective that comes with understanding what has come before. In this regard, he echoes a key lesson I hope Nittany Valley Press can help instill in our community over the course of time.

Knowing your story not only enriches your experience as a participant in an unfolding narrative, it also forges a more durable identity and can drastically improve decision-making. Focusing on that last point, it is perhaps unavoidable for a college town, a place that turns over nearly a quarter of its population annually, to forget much of its past. Even here, in a place where we claim to honor, even venerate, tradition, the mists of time quickly obscure, and sometimes totally consume, the dreams, triumphs, and failures of our predecessors. We must continuously unearth this information and refresh it for new sensibilities, driven by a sense of service and affection for the place—if we do this, we can, as Revsine attempts in “The Opening Kickoff,” equip new generations with the tools to better understand and navigate their present.

A few concrete examples of what I’m describing come from a project I am wrapping up with the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County (CBICC). For the last year, I have been helping catalog the Chamber’s historical archives—an extensive collection of news clippings, photographs, and documents dating back to the organization’s earliest days as the State College Chamber of Commerce in the 1920s. I should note that we have had a great experience working the College of the Liberal Arts to obtain smart, capable undergraduate interns and the University Libraries for guidance on archiving procedures.

The collection is pretty remarkable, and I hope that once we are through taking stock of it, we can arrange some sort of public exhibition of the coolest stuff. Some of my favorite finds so far:

  • About 10 years ago, I learned about a proposal to close Allen Street between College and Beaver to install a pedestrian mall. I remembered thinking it was a very cool idea that might gets it chance within the next decade or so. We’re still waiting, but I had no idea of just how long that wait has been. Thanks to my encounter with the CBICC archives, I know the concept actually reached a pretty serious planning stage in 1965 (models were built) and had been discussed as early as the mid-1920s.
  • Articles dating back to the 1960s foreshadow the inefficiencies and financial costs of maintaining multiple municipal governments within the boundaries of “State College.” Today, the six municipalities that make up the community (SC Borough and College, Ferguson, Half Moon, Harris, and Patton Townships) each enjoy their unique character and relative autonomy, but consistently struggle to reconcile regional issues like infrastructure, transportation and the costs of police/fire services. I wonder how many of us appreciate how long this arrangement has been a matter of debate.
  • I especially enjoyed a CDT editorial from 1985 lamenting the Phi Psi 500 as a raucous, manufactured “drinking holiday” and arguing for its extinction. The similarity to modern jeremiads against State Patty’s Day, right down to the exact language, are striking and amusing, and we now know they were ultimately successful (younger readers will need to click the link to even understand what I’m referencing). It sheds valuable light on the “drinking holiday” as hardly a new or novel occurrence at Penn State. I wonder if those Reagan-era critics of the 500 could have seen its eventual replacement whether they might have just left well enough alone.

Discovering this sort of information is fun, of course, but it also offers valuable perspective that can help us have more honest conversations and make smarter choices.The real challenge comes in bringing these stories to life in a way that captures the imagination, allowing that beneficial knowledge to sink in.

A Disclaimer: I can’t reference Revsine’s book without also mentioning that, yes, as can only be expected for a modern work of journalism examining the state of college football, its foreword contains a couple of rather unflattering allusions to Penn State. For some, that alone will be enough to dismiss it out of hand. I am not among them. To his credit, Revsine at least bothers to include the seemingly-optional “allegedly” when referencing the Freeh Report’s most controversial conclusions. As a community, we will live (and wrestle) with the Penn State leadership’s post-scandal decisions and their consequences for many years. Having accepted this, I choose against recusing myself from any otherwise worthwhile conversation that includes a harsh reminder that Pandora’s Box can never be closed back up again.