A crowd of Penn State students in school sweatshirts huddled together near an old university building to listen to a call for unity, healing and peace. They wiped away tears, rested their heads on friends' shoulders and reflected on a week that stained the place many of them see as a second home.
"We are what makes the university thrive," said T.J. Bard, student body president, the day after his peers rioted in the streets to defend coach Joe Paterno. "And we are the ones who must restore glory to Penn State."
Why them? What happened on their campus wasn't their fault. Most didn't even know Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky and Mike McQueary. Usually in society, when something as horrific as child molestation happens, people around the alleged perpetrators cut all ties. They reject. So why not protest Sandusky preying upon children instead of rioting against the board for firing a football coach? Why not feel satisfaction in the punishment of an old guard that collectively made serious leadership errors, rather than oppose the rightful dissolution of a system that protected evil?
"If they were completely objective, they would say, 'These people did something terrible and I can't support them, I cannot be in their corner.'" says Dr. Don Forsyth, a psychology professor specializing in group dynamics at the University of Richmond. "But they aren't objective."
What's happening to the students in Happy Valley is a common psychological phenomenon. The rest of the country watches the students and thinks they're missing the point. But in the students' minds, the story is happening to them. After all, "We are Penn State."
This is somewhat similar to the reaction to the rioting in Vancouver after the Canucks lost the Stanley Cup. Only a few hoodlums caused trouble, but the entire nation reeled in shame. Why?
Social psychologists use two terms: BIRGing and CORFing -- Basking in Reflected Glory and Cutting off Reflected Failure. In the first, fans of a football team, for example, want to identify with the players' success. Decked out in team gear, they'll say, "We had a great win. We were awesome," when in reality the fans had no part in the win. Cutting off Reflected Failure happens when a team makes a mistake or loses, and fans blame it on an external factor to distance themselves from the defeat. "The refs were biased. The weather's bad." The true blame doesn't lie with the team.
"This is clearly a case of collective identity," says Dr. Forsyth of the Penn State reaction. "Students leave home, leave their family and they want to identify with their school. Their school has always been a place of tradition and honor, and that has been tarnished. So when they lose that identity, they panic."
In 1989, Social Psychology Quarterly published one of the definitive studies on basking in reflected glory. The study examined Canadian citizens' reactions to the news that Olympic hero Ben Johnson was stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for steroids. The researchers found that people overwhelmingly said Johnson, a sprinter, had unknowingly taken the steroids, and that his handlers were the responsible ones.
Defend your chosen hero and find someone else to blame.
Many students see JoePa as a victim, and their strong identity with him means they feel like victims, too. So they blame the media or the legal system. Is it a coincidence that the only real material damage from the riots was an overturned TV news truck? Respected ESPN reporter Tom Farrey said he was hit by a rock.
Most of us can't truly relate to the most important part of this story -- the part that really has nothing to do with football. The part with the kids whose lives have never and will never be the same after such abuse from adults they were supposed to be able to trust. The part with the parents who couldn't save their children from sexual predators. But when you're 18 or 19 years old in State College, football is what you see everywhere around you and abuse (and the victims' faces) are hidden.
"Football runs the social life, it's all about football," Forsyth says. "It's the major source of everything that happens there.
"The actual crimes are very distant from them."
The atmosphere changed by the end of the week. Student leaders came together to support victims of sexual abuse by wearing blue ribbons to Saturday's game and selling T-shirts to raise money for the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Prevent Child Abuse America Organization. PSU and Nebraska students joined in prayer before the game. But it's a short stride in a long process of healing. "We are Penn State" must be put to better use.
"To really heal, the students need a leader, a leader who will restore their social identity and stand for Penn State," Forsyth says. "Someone to remind them what their values are and help them get over this humiliation."
Putting all of your faith into an institution can be destructive. To allow your identity to be so mixed with the actions of others can become a morally offensive thing, Forsyth says, but it's an irresistible feeling that can also be used for good.
The shared identity and responsibility can be motivation for positive good in State College. As the class president said, the students are what make the university. Not one man, not five men, not flawed leadership. The students can restore Penn State to its rightful owners -- the educators.
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