Penn State Riots, Sports, and Life

Everyone has been trying to make sense of the recent events at Penn State. Many wonder how Coach Joe Paterno failed to do more when his assistant allegedly raped a small boy, and they wonder why the administration let a sex offender slide for so long. I have wondered about those questions too, but I also have been pondering the contrasting ways that people reacted to the story. Despite the overwhelming criticism of Paterno’s failure to do more, many Penn State students, alum, and fans continue to show support for Paterno.

Many criticize the Penn State fans who rioted when the university Board of Trustees fired Paterno late at night. Students gathered that night, and then they tore down light posts and flipped over a news van. Then, on Saturday, Penn State fans showed up for the game against Nebraska showing their support for the fired coach. Meanwhile, commentators questioned how some Penn State fans could rally around Paterno and be upset at his dismissal.

There is nothing unique about Penn State fans. Had the scandal occurred elsewhere, many of the football fans now condemning Paterno and Penn State would be rallying around their own beloved coach. What is it about sports that causes us to act that way? Why do we become so passionate that we become angry at other fans in different colors? Why might we continue to support players and coaches on our own team when they have done something illegal or immoral?

In Time Magazine, Sean Gregory wrote that the rioting was “senseless” and that the students felt personally wronged when the school fired Paterno. Further, “If there’s one image that speaks to America’s twisted relationship with college sports, it’s the Penn State pro-Paterno rallies.” I understand the sentiment and the criticism of college sports, but it is wrong to distance ourselves so much from the rioting college students. The motivations that led them to riot are motivations that move us every day.

A Penn State graduate tried to find some sense in the riots. Michael Weinrab wrote in a Grantland article that quoted a student who explained, “Being accepted to Penn State felt like a family, and Joe Paterno was the father.” That statement does not tell the whole story, but it starts to help us make sense of the Paterno supporters and to get a little nearer to understanding the supporters instead of just chalking it up to “senseless” college students.

Previous Chimesfreedom posts have discussed the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who pondered similar questions about human behavior. In books like The Denial of Death, he explained that many of the things we do, like root for sports teams, is done to give meaning to our lives. When someone challenges the things that give meaning to our lives, it upsets us.

Becker’s book touches on several themes, but a principal theme may be summarized (in a somewhat oversimplified way): (1) human beings are intelligent; (2) because we are intelligent, we are faced with the knowledge that we are rotting pieces of animal flesh that will someday die; (3) this knowledge of our mortality is overwhelming, so we push the knowledge to our subconscious; (4) to help us deal with our knowledge of mortality, we subconsciously latch onto various cultural devices that help us suppress our fear of death — such as activities that make us feel immortal, like patriotism, shopping, or rooting for sports teams. Our subconscious quest for immortality may drive us to do things that benefit others, but it also may make us hostile to others who have belief systems different from us.

Terror Management Theory” psychologists have done significant research regarding how these theories affect our real world interactions. And Ernest Becker’s books, in particular Denial of Death and Escape from Evil, explain the theories in more detail.

As an example of the connection between sports, death, and immortality, watch this speech from We Are Marshall (2006). The movie recounts the true story of a town and team rebuilding after members of the high school football team were killed in a plane crash. In this speech, Coach Jack Lengyel, played by Matthew McConaughey, extols his players to live up to their best by reminding them of their predecessors’ deaths. By reminding them of their own mortality, he tells them, “How you play today, from this moment on, is how you will be remembered.” (3:26) If that is not a clear enough connection between sports and immortality, he then adds, “This is your opportunity to rise from these ashes and grab glory.” In a line reminiscent of the Penn State comment about family, the team then chants, “We are Marshall,” asserting they are not mortal individuals but something bigger and permanent that survives even death.

Most people, like me, will find this speech moving. But it is these same emotions that drove the Penn State fans to riot. In Penn State, those students who rioted this week at the news of Paterno’s firing were not just upset about a coach being fired. Had those students enrolled in another school, they would not have been upset. But, like we all do, they had found meaning — and subconscious immortality — in something larger than themselves.

Their school — and in particular the Nittany Lions football team and the long-term coach — made them something more than college students worried about life and their futures. By being a Penn State fan, those students were attached to something large and permanent that made them feel immortal, like they could rise from the ashes. And then when the power of the coach and the team was revealed to be a fraud, it made them feel like they lost their own power and were closer to being a weak, powerless animal. They foolishly and subconsciously hoped to re-establish this lost power through their riots.

None of this explanation is to offer an excuse for the riots. But as in everything, it is always good when we try to understand why someone else acts as they do, because we all are human. This weekend when I watch my favorite football team I will try to remember that it is just a game, but I will probably forget.

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