The parade of Penn State students rallying in support of Joe Paterno quickly devolved into a riot when angry mobs chanting, “We love JoePa,” started smashing cars and even flipped a news van. They were responding to the university’s decision to fire the legendary football coach after discovering he was implicated in a cover-up of allegations that his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually assaulted young boys. Although Paterno informed higher ups about the alleged abuse, he didn’t report it to police after the University failed to adequately respond, making it hard to sympathize with the 84-year-old Paterno, who was planning to make this season, his 46th as head coach, his last. Still, supporters of Paterno, who essentially enabled Sandusky to continue abusing boys, have taken their sympathy to fanatic levels; camping on his lawn, destroying property and even reportedly sending death threats to assistant coach Mike McQueary, who says he recounted to Paterno having witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in 2002.
Which begs the question: Why would anyone support, let alone riot for, someone like Joe Paterno? “Not to trivialize the magnitude of this, but the reaction of the fans isn’t that dissimilar from what sports fans do all the time,” Dr. Sam Sommers, Associate Professor of Psychology at Tufts University, told Men’s Fitness. “Who among us that’s a sports fan hasn’t had to overlook domestic abuse charges in players we root for, or performance-enhancing drug use, or acts of violence or other criminal and immoral behavior?” Sommers explains that, for anyone subscribing to a belief, it’s all about perception. “A lot of people are as passionate about sports as they are about religion and political beliefs. You get two sports fans talking about a close call at first base and, it’s not that they’re lying to each other, they legitimately see the reality differently.” Dr. David Solly, Professor of Psychology at the University of the Rockies, chalks it up to cognitive dissonance. “You learn some new information that just doesn’t fit with what you’ve known and believed in the past, so it’s natural to reject the new information simply because it’s so much opposed to what you’ve known to be true in the past,” he explains. “We basically start out with attitudes towards someone based on the experience we’ve had. And those will move to beliefs, which are a little stronger. And then, once that’s reinforced over time, we basically develop values. The values are highly prized, they’re things we vigorously fight to defend and I think in terms of the Penn State folks, they’ve come to know and love Joe Paterno and believe in him and they firmly believe that he did nothing wrong.”
Indeed, the ambiguity of the situation offers ample justification for students to feel so impassioned in their support. “If he were the one being accused of these actual acts, you would have to believe that things would be very different,” Sommers says. “I keep hearing the argument being made, ‘Well, what more could he have done? He reported it.’ So for people who want to support him, they can hang their hat on that. It’s an ambiguous enough situation that they can say, ‘He did his job.'” Solly agrees. “If he was the one engaging in the behavior Jerry Sandusky was, the reaction would be much more negative towards him. They would really turn on him because you get that really strong negative reaction the opposite way when people feel they have personally been violated by someone’s trust.” Meanwhile, for many students, it’s simply unity that’s driving their fury. “I definitely think that comes into play,” says Dr. Allen Cornelius, Sports Psychologist at the University of the Rockies. “I worked for a lot of years on college campuses and being part of the group and part of a movement—it’s kind of exciting. College campuses have a lot of young folks that think, ‘There’s something going on over there in the quad and I’m going to take part in it.’ They might not even be thinking about the implications. There’s a crowd mentality that probably takes over pretty quickly.” Sommers adds, “I’m sure for some of them, it’s just about being with the group. For some of them it’s probably about alcohol. For some of them it’s about the natural tendency that many of us have at that age of adolescence to enjoy rebelling against the powers that be.” Still, sports fanaticism is a very real thing that drives people to, sometimes, outrageous extremes. “There are studies that make it clear why we like to be sports fans. We like the affiliation of being with others and being in a group of people and having a similar interest and pulling for something together. That makes us feel good and connected to other people,” Sommers says. Cornelius says that collegiate sports take this loyalty a step further. “Sports, and particularly collegiate sports, fans get really whetted to the institution,” he explains. “When you’re a student at a school, or even an alumni, you identify so strongly with that—even more so than professional sports. The college you go to, you wear their colors, you have their logos, you have their mascots. You get pretty connected to that in a very strong way.” He concludes, “When you go to a college, you’re an 18- to 22-year-old trying to find your identity and your purpose and I think that process gets all caught up in that as well.”