There is perhaps only one thing more iconic about Penn State football than Joe Paterno.
They are blue and white, arguably the most identifiable in the sport.
But after the recent conviction of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on sexual assault charges and the severe NCAA sanctions that followed this month, those uniforms mean something different than they have for so many years. And that’s why they may be changing.
The Reading (Pa.) Eagle reported that new Penn State coach Bill O’Brien told parents of his players he has reached out to Nike about altering the uniforms as soon as this season. “It might be easier said than done,” the newspaper quoted the coach as saying. “I’m not sure we can get it done this year.”
The Eagle reported O’Brien told parents the updated version may even have names on the back, something Paterno never went for even though nearly every other team in the nation does it.
Some may argue any change would be purely cosmetic, or even a diversion from the true problems the university is facing. But it could just as easily be argued that the best way to send a message of change is by putting a new “face” on the most visible aspect of the football team.
“By changing that uniform it gives them a chance to chart a new course,” says Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “It actually makes a lot of sense. It’s one of the most visible ways the university communicates its identity.”
So much was made of moving the Paterno statue outside Beaver Stadium, but this would actually go further. Instead of just distancing itself from the long-time coach, changing the uniforms would create a clear transition from the past. Fans watching highlights in 10, 20, or 50 years would be able to easily demarcate which games came during Paterno’s tenure and which came after. Even something as simple as the names on the uniforms would make that point in time clear.
“If the overarching theme here is a culture change, the uniform is a piece of that culture,” Swangard says. “To alter it may speak volumes.”
Some Paterno defenders may feel a uniform change is yet another unnecessary olive branch to those who simply want to attack the program. Some students still wear T-shirts supporting Paterno around campus, and a recent poll reported on by The Harrisburg Patriot-News found a surprising amount of statewide support for Paterno.
But even some incoming freshmen strongly feel a new direction is needed and they want to be a part of that. And from the video put together by some of the senior athletes this week, it seems there is a groundswell of support for moving forward.
Whether the uniform change happens or not, credit O’Brien for calling the parents together and conveying the message that nothing about Penn State’s recent past is sacred except the tradition of great football. “I definitely feel a bond with your sons,” O’Brien said, according to the Eagle. “I’m here for your sons and I will continue to be here for your sons. We’ll fight through this adversity together.”
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