The Nittany Lions Sect: Pennsylvania State Civil Religion and Public Perceptions of the Cultic

Commentators have frequently ascribed cult-like qualities to the culture surrounding the Nittany Lions football program, but further investigation reveals this attribution to be highly oversimplified, and discloses an alarming lack of “religion literacy.”

The recent scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky produced a firestorm of commentaries focused on the exalted status given to the Penn State football program. Commentators frequently ascribed religious and cult-like qualities to the culture surrounding the Nittany Lions football team. Descriptions featured “worship” of coach Joe Paterno, ritualistic acts of purely private and undisclosed significance, an esoteric mythology about the highly exceptional and besieged status of Penn Staters, ethical directives of absolute loyalty to the group, strict seclusion from outsiders, and a rigidly defined hierarchy of social authority. ((Dozens of articles and video presentations emerged with titles of “the false God Joe Pa,” “the cult of Joe Paterno,” and “the end of coach worship.”)) In July of 2012, the imposition of NCAA sanctions and the removal of the Paterno statue at Beaver Stadium brought another wave of commentaries, almost without exception extending the narrative about the extreme and cultic nature of the football culture at Penn State. Ian O’Connor of ESPN wrote: “the culture of coach worship must end.” Gary Ayd of the Bleacher Report claimed: “the statue was removed due to…idol worship.” Jasmine Sadry of CBS in Dallas, Texas, condemned “the cult that is Happy Valley.”

Close examination of Penn State football indicates much commitment to pivotal elements of civil religion for the state, the belief system and orientation to living that extends with a sense of the sacred from the public life of Pennsylvania. The investigation reveals the attribution of cult-like characteristics to be highly oversimplified as a description of the Nittany Lions football program. This discloses an alarming lack of “religion literacy” regarding religious phenomena in general and Pennsylvania religions in particular. The present analysis explores the thesis that many Pennsylvanians closely identify with football due to an “elective affinity,” as developed by famed sociologist Max Weber, between the core characteristics of the game and the foundational aspects of in-state religion. Weber developed this theory to explain the intimate relationship between forms of Protestantism and the emergent capitalism of the nineteenth century. ((Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Penguin Books, 2002).)) Elective affinity refers to a strong inclination for close relations between two social forces of differing origins and ideological character, though the relationship develops by way of voluntary choices. The game of football, especially as played by Penn State, provides vivid illustrations of the sectarian qualities of Pennsylvania religion: the residue of holy aspirations by the Amish, Mennonites, Moravians, ethnic Catholics, Jewish communities, and many others. ((See J. William Frost, A Perfect Freedom: Religious Liberty in Pennsylvania (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Stephen L. Longenecker, Piety and Tolerance: Pennsylvania German Religion, 1700-1850 (New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1994); Otto Reimherr, ed., Quest for Faith, Quest for Freedom: Aspects of Pennsylvania’s Religious Experience (Pennsylvania: Susquehanna University Press, 1987).))

Perceptions of the Cultic at Penn State

First, the ascription of cult-like characteristics to the culture surrounding the Nittany Lions football program featured elements of ritual life for fans, particularly related to acts of support for coach Joe Paterno. Descriptions of simple “worship” and deification of Paterno often accompanied televised images and written reports of supporters kneeling in prayer outside the coach’s house or leaving memorable items on the ground near the statue of the coach on campus. Some writers and commentators like Charles Pierce of Grantland questioned the use of prayer, presenting the practice as predetermined to reject critical thinking on the topic of sexual abuse, or seemingly any other issue of moral significance. Others criticized the acts of silence and stillness offered in prayerfulness, whether enacted by individual fans or collectively at the stadium before a game. Ben Heineman of The Atlantic, Jennifer Doyle of The Guardian, and Daniel Luzer of the Washington Monthly wrote of such efforts and of the longstanding reluctance by Joe Paterno for disclosure to the media as interrelated expressions of a “culture of silence,” apparently constructed to preclude consideration of criticism produced by the scandal, or anything originating outside the Nittany nation.

Second, the portrayal of cultic characteristics at Penn State highlighted an illusory mythology of local innocence and a highly exceptional status associated with “Happy Valley,” the well-established name for the place of residence for the Pennsylvania State University. Wright Thompson of ESPN wrote, “the myth of Happy Valley never had much to do with reality…There is nothing special about Happy Valley…” ((Wright Thompson, ESPN The Magazine, November 24, 2011.)) Dana O’Neil of ESPN claimed, the “myth of the idyllic Happy Valley is false.” ((Dana O’Neill, ESPN The Magazine, November 11, 2011.)) Many articles cast Penn Staters as extraordinarily shaped by narratives of a highly reactionary character, which creates delusional perceptions of the outside world as hostile.

Third, the attribution of a cult-like character to Penn State football featured devotion to rigidly prescribed principles for behavior, starting with belief in absolute loyalty to the team. The ascribed ethic exalted a utilitarian and all out pursuit of success on the field, which was quick to justify almost any means to facilitate the desired end of victory. ((See Gene Wojciechowski, “The Tragedy of Joe Paterno,”, November 11, 2011, accessed January 8, 2012, Fourth, the alleged football cult of the Nittany Lions extended from dedication to a strict seclusion of outsiders and to a rigidly defined hierarchy of authority. Bob Ley of ESPN spoke of “the closed and opaque culture at Penn State.” ((Bob Ley, “Outside the Lines,” ESPN, broadcast April 12, 2012.)) Frank Fitzpatrick of the Philadelphia Inquirer claimed the existence of a “culture of secrecy.” Others attributed to the Nittany Lions program hierarchical relations of an extreme and harmful character. Maureen Dowd of the New York Times wrote of assistant coach Mike McQueary as “a serf in Paternoland.”

The Nittany Lions Sect

After careful investigation, Penn State football exhibits dedication to the qualities of a religious sect as established in the academic study of religion, and not the alleged cult-like characteristics. Sects feature ritual acts of public character, though without concern for full disclosure to outsiders. The sacred stories of a sect include an understanding of connections with a vast group of others, while conveying concepts believed to be descriptive of life’s realities for many generations. Sectarian ethics uphold much commitment to the individual person and people of distant relations, providing a balance for devotion to the religious community. A sect is highly independent and hierarchical in orientation, but with dedication also to working relations with outsiders and a push for equality. In contrast, cults feature rituals performed in secrecy from the outside world. They also highlight the lack of ties to anyone or anything of the recent past or near future, thus narrating understandings of life that fail to convince generations over extended periods of time. In cults, conceptions of the ethical demand total self-sacrifice for the good of the group. These concepts are strictly opposed to the concern for individuality, as well as the concern for others outside the community of faith. A cult brings near complete isolation from outsiders and an inflexible hierarchy of authority that extends from a dictatorial individual. ((For the well-established distinctions between “sect” and “cult” in the academic study of religion, see William H. Swatos, ed., “Church-Sect Theory,” in Encyclopedia of Religion and Society (California: Altamira, 1998), 90-93.))

First, related to the ritualistic life of a sect, Pennsylvania religion generates devotion to sacramental actions that minimize the importance of the spoken word in quite a visible manner. The game of football particularly expresses exaltation of highly meaningful and public action over discourse, as the quick moving play and the wearing of protective helmets greatly inhibit the ability to converse. The Nittany Lions team further exemplifies the ultimate concern for non-discursive acts, the legacy of a longstanding directive from Joe Paterno to “play and keep mouths shut.” ((Consequently, the national championship game in 1987 provided an especially dramatic contrast in orientation, pitting the “trash talking” and combat-fatigue-wearing University of Miami Hurricanes against the slow-to-speak Lions of Penn State. See Frank Fitzpatrick, Pride of the Lions: The Biography of Joe Paterno (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2011), 138-152; M.G. Missonelli, The Perfect Season: How Penn State Came to Stop a Hurricane and Win a National Football Championship (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007).)) In press conferences, Paterno offered “Joe speak,” something of his own language that greatly downplayed the importance of the particular words spoken and shifted attention instead to the performance of the team. Especially compared to programs of similar size and tradition, Penn State fans offer minimal words of criticism. Recent media descriptions of a cult-like lack of disclosure and dedication to silence fail to consider the weighty significance given to intentional acts of restricting the spoken word in Pennsylvania religiosity. In-state Quakers, Anabaptists, Catholics, and Jews promote concern from the Bible to be doers of, rather than talkers about, divine directives, thus shaping a public culture much less oriented to oratory and conversation than many prominent communities within the larger country.

Second, football provides narratives of actions on the field that illustrate foundational themes for sacred stories in Pennsylvania. The play on the gridiron offers dramatic portrayals of state mythology regarding the persistent encounter by Pennsylvanians with much hostility and enmity, especially at Valley Forge during the Revolution, Gettysburg during the Civil War, and more recently related to distant powerbrokers of “globalization.” Consequently, the embattled conditions of football take on particularly weighty meaning, especially when violent opponents “invade Penn State territory,” but the Nittany Lions “claw and fight” their way to an “ugly win.” The football narrative of intense struggle against harsh and hostile forces extends into relations with nature, resonating further with mythology in the Keystone State. The revered story of Valley Forge features the bitter cold of winter, while the mythic events at Gettysburg are described as occurring in severe heat, and legendary disasters like the flood at Johnstown extend the storyline. Descriptions of delusional and cult-like mythology surrounding Penn State football lack an understanding of how foundational stories function for well-established religious communities in general, and specifically for religious sects in Pennsylvania. Sacred narratives in religious traditions are not simple claims about life that can be easily evaluated. They are expressions of multi-faceted thinking over generations regarding core truths associated with the past, present, and future. ((Philosopher of religion Mark C. Taylor writes about both sport and religion as generators of “virtual eschatology,” an existence or mindset of somewhere between the present and future. See Mark C. Taylor, After God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).)) Pennsylvania state mythology of embattled conditions is closely associated with historical events and with perspectives very similar to those considered truthful by many others across the country, far from being illusory and extreme.

The millennial quality of Pennsylvania civil religion finds expression in the game of football and the mythic understanding of “Happy Valley.” The play on the gridiron offers a vivid mythological dramatization of a much better future by way of the ever-departing action, conveying a pivotal narrative for diverse sects across the state that reveals the striving for an ideal and more peaceable life someday. ((See Gary G. DeSantis, “Penn State: Symbol and Myth” (MA thesis, University of South Florida, 2009).)) Teams hurriedly leave the present location, ever striving for achievement somewhere else in the futuristic distance. The storied understanding of “Happy Valley” builds on the in-state concern for something grand to come. Players, coaches, and fans achieve moments of accomplished hopes associated with this legendary place, but only after much of the struggle during a particular game or season, while the sense of accomplishment and happiness lasts in a quite temporary manner until the soon-to-develop pursuit of the next game or year. Portrayals of such thinking as “false” display a misunderstanding of the multi-dimensional and complex character of religious narratives that endure the test of time for large communities of people.

Third, Penn State football culture displays devotion to ethical qualities of foundational significance for the in-state religiosity. Diverse communities planted strong dedication across the commonwealth to self-sacrifice for the greater good of the larger community, inspiring close identification with football as a result of the intensive focus on teamwork. ((The game action is much more directly about teamwork than baseball or basketball.)) The plain white uniforms and all black shoes for the Nittany Lions dramatized the virtue of directing attention sharply away from the individual and onto the larger group. The nameless jerseys and unadorned uniforms of the Penn State football team exhibit Pennsylvanian concern for strong loyalty to the surrounding community. The recent characterizations feature the dedication to loyalty as an absolute directed very narrowly to the team in the manner of a cult. However, Nittany Lions football teams consistently serve in community service work and uphold much commitment to the opposing team by way of opposition to running up the score, which further expresses the sect-like ethic of extending the sense of responsibility well beyond people of close relations. ((Charlie Pittman and Tony Pittman, Playing for Paterno: One Coach, Two Eras (Chicago: Triumph Books, 2007), 56.))

Pennsylvania civil religion promotes the ethical value of the pragmatic pursuit of success and prosperity, the consequence of many groups who adjusted to new conditions and pursued the acquisition of properties for the “common wealth” needs of the state. Football dramatically illustrates the pragmatic and acquisitive goals, as the game action focuses on the pursuit of ever better ways to possess more territory. Though renowned for conservation of well-established methods, Joe Paterno produced long-term success as a result of pragmatic shifts in approach at key moments. ((The 1982 Nittany Lions became the first team in NCAA Division I history to win a national championship while passing the ball more often than running. Later, Joe Paterno embraced the playing of freshman, running quarterbacks, and the spread offense. On the other hand, former running back Larry Johnson complained that “everyone knows what we’re going to do.” See Frank Fitzpatrick, The Lion In Autumn: A Season with Joe Paterno and Penn State Football (New York: Gotham Books, 2005), xii.)) Media descriptions after the Sandusky scandal featured the influence of a utilitarian orientation of the “football factory” and unrestrained drive for success on the field, enhancing the association with groups of extreme orientation. ((Wojciechowski, “The Tragedy of Joe Paterno.”)) Decade after decade, nevertheless, Paterno separated himself from other coaches by way of strict discipline for the players, very much in the manner of highly disciplined religious communities across the state. Consistently, the Nittany Lions excelled in the graduation of players, showing long-term constraint on the desire for simple pursuit of victory on the scoreboard.

Finally, Penn State football exhibits in-state devotion to certain modes of social orientation. For relations with outsiders, Pennsylvania communities display strong commitment to much independence from others. Football particularly expresses the dedication to separate living. Teams persistently line up on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage, committed to diametrically opposed goals. Led by Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions program further exemplified the concern for separateness by way of a seclusion humorously described as “Kremlin-like,” and quite secretive about the disclosure of information to the media. ((Fitzpatrick, The Lion In Autumn, 43. Interestingly, Paterno was known early on as being exceptionally media friendly.)) Penn State football expresses the sectarian character of the state religion, highly independent in orientation but without the strict isolation and closed qualities of a cult. Showing the way, Paterno lived in remarkable openness to others, walking to work each day and living on an easily accessible street. The team resides with the other students, and not in separate dorms. The well-earned reputation of fans for hospitality to supporters of the opposing team and the emphasis on academics in the program display strong concern for quality involvement in the larger society and national life of the United States. ((Kenneth W. Werley, Joe Paterno, Penn State and College Football – What You Never Knew (Connecticut: University of New Haven Press, 2001), 311; Pittman and Pittman, 13.))

For relations between insiders, Pennsylvania civil religion features trust in well-defined hierarchical relations of authority, generating strong affinity for the dedication to chains of command in football. Coaches dictate the action in every play of a contest, while only a select group of “skill players” handle the football. ((See Craig A. Forney, The Holy Trinity of American Sports: Civil Religion in Football, Baseball, and Basketball (Georgia: Mercer University Press, 2007).)) Joe Paterno oversaw activities of the Penn State team in an especially authoritative manner, earning him the title “the Pope of Pennsylvania.” The recent descriptions of Penn State football highlighted the hierarchical quality of relations, albeit as extremely rigid and inflexible. In sect-like state fashion, however, the Nittany Lions program has exhibited strong commitment to fluidity and equality in relations, bringing balance to the concern for hierarchy. Though Paterno exercised great authority, assistant coaches exerted an increasingly extensive influence in the last decade. Historically, the Nittany Lions promoted leaders rather than stars. Paterno scripted much about the offensive and defensive performance in game action, but as a means for players “to make plays,” giving pivotal importance to self-determined activity by the individual player as a play develops or “breaks down.” Frequently, he explained that “it’s about the Jimmys and the Joes more than the Xs and the Os.” ((Fitzpatrick, The Lion In Autumn, 3, 100.))


The recent and abundant commentaries on the culture of Penn State football accurately refer to the influence of religious qualities, though frequently with highly exaggerated descriptions demonstrating a lack of “religion literacy.” The extraordinary passion in Pennsylvania for the Penn State team results from elective affinity between core aspects of the game of football and sectarian qualities of in-state religions, but does not involve the alleged cultic characteristics. First, football expresses Pennsylvania state devotion to the ultimate importance of actions and the downplaying of concern for the spoken word, providing public acts of weighty significance without demand for well-defined explanations. Second, the play on the gridiron provides dramatic illustrations for sacred stories in the Keystone State about the striving for a much better future in a present life of hostility and enmity. Third, the game action presents especially vivid expressions for commitment to state virtues of self-sacrifice for the larger community and pragmatic acquisitiveness in complement to a far-reaching sense of responsibility. Finally, the game of football expresses separatist and hierarchical qualities of religions across Pennsylvania, but alongside in-state dedication to integration and equality – not the isolated and autocratic character of a cult.

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