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Penn State’s Punishment: Denial, Identity and Self-Worth

Posted Jul 24 2012 10:26am

I’ve spent most of the afternoon trolling the seemingly endless blogs/websites regarding the Penn State scandal and the sanctions handed down from the NCAA. I noticed that a prevalent theme from the schools fans, students and alumni centers around the idea that punishments directed toward the football program would unfairly hurt people who had done nothing wrong (e.g., students, incoming players, new coaches, fans, etc.). Some went as so far to say that no punishment is the most acceptable course of action.

I added these thoughts to one site’s Comments thread:

There will always be collateral damage when punishments are handed down. There are always indirect victims. When people do terrible things, the families of the perpetrators suffer. That doesn’t mean you don’t act. There isn’t a viable way to deliver any sort of justice without damaging the current/future students. When you join a program – in this case, PSU – and identify with it (“We ARE…Penn State!”) then you immediately have to be part of the negative elements that may become associated with it. It’s not a one-way street. If you want to chant when your team wins or your coach gives you a library, you are – fair or not – part of the community that is now suffering the consequences of the leaders’ actions.

Because the site had a character limit I couldn’t expand on that, so I’ll do that here.

I once wrote about the intense connection people feel toward their favorite sports teams (read that here ). As ridiculous as it is, people believe they are, each individually, a piece of a team’s identity. You’ll even hear people refer to themselves as part of organization (e.g., “WE need to get a new receiver if WE want to succeed this year”). Call it the 12th Man or simply a justification because they might pay to see the games or provide income to a school through tuition, but the reality is that those not on the field are just spectators who place an emotional investment in the outcome. Yet the identification remains. And, interestingly, those who are the most fervent in their support often pass on the opportunity to distance themselves in the face of damning evidence. Consider:

Penn State was just fined sixty million dollars, lost multiple scholarships and vacated 111 wins. They are ineligible to play in any postseason games for the next four years (for those who don’t like sports, you only need to know that this is very, very bad for Penn State football). And despite the fact that only a select few are questioning the culpability of Penn State’s leaders, including the deceased Joe Paterno, the fans say that the punishment is unfair, that it hurts others, that it’s wrong. Why? Not because of any conscious, rational argument or cogent take on justice, but because of identity. The mentality runs a dangerous course to self-loathing:

If Penn State is punished that strongly, then they must be incredibly guilty.
If they are incredibly guilty, then they are bad.
If I’m part of that community, then I’M bad.

One could consciously challenge this idea and save his/her psyche simply by noting that he/she is NOT actually part of that group, but that would devastate the entire identity package that was developed during all the decades of prosperity, football wins and celebrations (remember the chant: “WE are…Penn State!,” not “I’m a fan OF…Penn State”). No, this type of cognitive dissonance can only be resolved through the challenging of the initial statement:

If Penn State is punished that strongly, then the punishment is unfair toward the students, players and, most importantly, ME.

It’s no wonder that people take such a strong stance that many find irrational. It’s not simply about justice; at a deep, somewhat inaccessible level, it’s about self-worth. This is truly unfortunate, because the topic then suddenly becomes about the self, as opposed to those it should be about: the victims.

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