On Paterno and Sports Fan Myopia

What kind of person holds a pep rally for Joe Paterno?

Posted Nov 10, 2011

I spent much of my afternoon today in the car, passing the time as I often do by listening to sports talk radio. The topic du jour was the remarkable turn of events in State College, PA, where allegations of child sexual assault against a former assistant have finally (after an unconscionable delay of several days) led to tonight's dismissal of legendary football coach Joe Paterno.

There is no shortage of disturbing aspects to this story. During the time I was listening, the radio hosts focused their energy on yesterday's impromptu rally in which hundreds of college students camped on Paterno's lawn and cheered for their coach.

How on earth, the hosts asked, could people show up to support a man who, at the very least, failed to do anything more than pass the buck upon learning that his assistant had been seen assaulting a child? These fans, they argued, like the rest of the parties involved in this sordid story, must be morally corrupt.

But should we really be that surprised that Penn State fans came out to support Paterno? That for many, their take on this story is so very different from the reaction the rest of us have? Sure, we're talking about perceptions of criminal behavior here, but isn't it a fairly ubiquitous aspect of being a sports fan to cling to a certain view of your team and its affiliated individuals even when objective indicators suggest otherwise?

After all, even the non-sports fans among us are remarkably good at distorting the world to fit a pre-determined narrative or preference. When the Democratic candidate bursts onto the national scene, long on charisma but short on experience, Democratic voters celebrate the arrival of a political outsider while Republicans pounce on the candidate's short résumé. But when the new rising star is a Republican, the voters and pundits swap roles: Republicans now cheer the fresh perspective while Democrats suddenly care about experience.

Sports fandom provides particularly salient examples of this tendency to warp the picture we see to fit the one we keep in our hearts:

• Quick to disparage the opposing slugger unmasked as a steroid user, we nonetheless give benefit of the doubt to similar missteps on the home team.

• We see the hardnosed agitator as a blue-collar leader when he plays on the team we root for, but label the same guy a villain when he suits up for someone else.

• Hell, as a Yankees fan, I long ago talked myself out of seeing the Jeffrey Maier saga as a blown call of fan interference. No, instead I've decided that it's the Great American Fan Story: Kid goes to a game and not only sees his favorite team win, but actually gets to play a role in that victory. My brother the Orioles fan doesn't seem to see it the same way.

Just how far-reaching are our sports fan affiliations when it comes to how we think about the world around us? They even shape our memories.

In a study published this month in the journal Psychological Science, researchers at Catholic University tested over 1,500 baseball fans on their memory. Specifically, they asked Yankees and Red Sox fans a series of factual questions about two games: Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS (won by the Yankees) and Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS (won by the Red Sox).

Their findings? Fans remembered the game their team won more accurately than the game their team lost. Yankees fans literally had better memories of 2003 than did Red Sox fans, and vice versa for 2004.

Now I can just hear my local talk radio hosts yelling that the Penn State case is different because here children were assaulted. That in a situation like this, any reasonably conscientious person would have a) done something to report or try stop the abuse or b) at least not participated in a public pep rally for an ostensible pillar of the community who failed to intervene.

I don't disagree.

From my vantage point, Paterno's behavior (or lack thereof) is indisputably indefensible. But this wouldn't be the first time that fans' sporting loyalties obscured their world view or sense of priority. Who among us hasn't, at one point or another, overlooked or rationalized immorality in the name of holding firm to sports allegiance?

Or done the same based on political affiliation? As with the sex scandal that reflects an acute character flaw when situated in the opposing party, but constitutes a manufactured trifle when it's in your own party.

So what kind of person holds a pep rally for Joe Paterno? A regular sports fan with regular biases, that's who. Given that whom and what we root for can actually change our memory, there should be little reason for surprise that it also shapes how we see the here and now. And not just for one particular set of fans of one particular team or coach. For all of us.


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