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Three reasons putting names on Penn St. uniforms makes sense

It's about the name on the...
Photo: Getty Images

It’s about the name on the…
Photo: Getty Images

There’s a saying in sports that it’s not about the names on the back of the jersey, it’s about the name on the front. For decades, Penn St. football has embraced the spirit behind that axiom. Their uniforms were in, so many ways, a reflection of the image the program projected to the broader college sports world. In the face of an alternate uniform craze favoring all sorts of sizzle, the Nittany Lions stood in stark contrast. Simple, classic uniforms. Clean, solid, traditional, and devoid of any player names on the jerseys’ backs. It was about the team, the program and its ideals – not the individual.

It turns out nothing was as it seemed, and, now, everything has changed. We’ve watched Penn St. football’s image facade crumble before  our eyes. The issues at play surrounding the team are incredibly disturbing and are a constant reminder of the relative “importance” that should be placed on college football — and how misguided those priorities were in State College. Now, comes another big change — the appearance of players names on the back of players jerseys for the first time in its football team’s history.

We are not equating the relative import of Penn St. football’s announcement of the decision to put players names on the back of the Nittany Lions jerseys with any of the central debates that have raged – and continue to do so – around the program and the institution. It is, however, an intriguing decision that speaks to so many of the broader issues and the many complex and intertwined layers that have been left in this scandal’s wake.

Here’s the news on the move.

According to the release, the players indicated the names on their jerseys also mean they will hold each other accountable to uphold the traditions of Penn State football, both on and off the field.
The school’s statement said the names will “adorn their jerseys in recognition of their resolve and dedication to the team and the university.”

What do you think? My first reaction was…wha-huh? Penn St. putting names on their backs? Now is the time where the ideal of team should stand above everything. This makes no sense! Blasphemy! Then, I calmed down. I tried to sprinkle my brain with a dose of reality…and something weird happened. I flip-flopped. In a lot of ways, this makes perfect sense. I can see how you could spin it for either side of the “argument.” Here’s just a few of my thoughts on why it’s right…for right now.

1. Breaking with Tradition is Good: From a sheer PR perspective, there were some that a few months ago joked that Penn State University might want to consider changing its name altogether. The institution has received so much negative publicity that it will seemingly be difficult for anyone to extricate the uttering of “Penn St.” from a conjuring up of images of the perpetrators, victims and all the sordidness associated with them. So, what exactly is the benefit of continuing to lean so heavily on a tradition that was not as clean or altruistic and selfless as is it was purported to be?

2. It’s a Small Nod to the Players: Part of me bristled at the notion of adding individual’s names. This is a time when team should be paramount right? Well, see number one above. And, second, it is a very small hat tip to the players — and that’s fine. Think about it. The appeal of transferring must have been incredibly powerful for these young men. A chance to “start over” with a once-in-a-lifetime play-now opportunity. Bowl games. Renewed energy. None of the baggage. No more questions. What the players who remained will have is each other…and Penn St. will still be playing to sold out Beaver Stadium…and showing up on national TV. So, if these men can’t play in the postseason, have already given up many of their wins, why not let them get a bit more recognition for that commitment.

3. Culture of Accountability: Last but not least, this move confirms a completely unscientific sense I get from Bill O’Brien and this crew. Yes, they’re all in it together. But, in that spirit, it’s each man’s responsibility to own up to their obligations and what it means to wear the uniform and be a student-athlete at Penn St. The program is not above reproach. The individuals must represent the school and its “new” principles to achieve any team goals. So, it does come down to the names on the back – to show what Penn St. and its football program are really about.


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