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

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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13 Responses to “Penn State’s Punishment: Denial, Identity and Self-Worth”

  1. JP says:

    Very well said and well-written. This explains the phenom very concisely. Very informative, thanks Doc.

  2. Jenna says:

    Awesome post. Well said Dr. Rob!

  3. Shona says:

    As always, well said!

  4. Jon says:

    Doesn’t this run contrary to the flipside of the 12th Man effect?
    That is; when a team has something negative happen (such as a loss) they stop using “we won” and use “they lost” to distance themselves (Cialdini et al., 1976).

    It feels like they would have distanced themselves rather than tried to protect their identities. Perhaps the increased severity causes this.

  5. Angela says:

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  6. Wes says:

    My problem with the punishments is that they in no way relate to the crime(s). I thought this other person’s blog post was closest to my line of reasoning: http://www.bigtengeeks.com/2012/07/purpose_25.html

    What would you say is the purpose of the punishment? And how is that purpose served by the penalties that were issued?

  7. Rob Dobrenski says:

    I will definitely write a post on punishments as a whole, but the long and short of it is that punishment is designed to modify behavior (at least that’s what a psychologist’s standpoint is, as opposed to a lawyer who might say that it’s to mete out justice). Is this a relevant philosophy from the Penn State scandal standpoint? Perhaps not. It’s more likely a mechanism to generate vicarious learning to other programs and attempt to provide some solace to the victims. But what would be a punishment that relates, specifically, to the crimes?

  8. Wes says:

    “But what would be a punishment that relates, specifically, to the crimes?”

    My argument is that there isn’t one from the NCAA. Punishment for Sandusky will likely be the rest of his life in prison, where he will be treated as badly as he treated all of those children. Paterno is dead and his legacy is ruined. Anyone with any ties to the cover up should be fired and prosecuted. Victims should receive restitution by the University. Anything beyond that seems too unrelated to the events. I understand that there will always be some collateral damage, but it is almost exclusively punishing people that were not involved with the tragedy.

    The fine of $60 million that will go to the victims of child abuse seems to be the only punishment of benefit to anyone. I also hope the actual victims get some direct compensation from Penn State.

    I suppose you could argue that other programs can learn from what happened at Penn State, but I can’t see it being a deterrent for someone who rapes children or someone who covers up child rape. I also don’t see any solace being provided to the victims. I think it’s kind of similar to the family of a victim that wants the death penalty for a defendant in a murder case. They fight voraciously for it, and then once the defendant is sentenced to death, they don’t feel any better.

    It is funny that you mention psychology vs law since I just graduated law school and you studied psychology. Maybe you and I are just looking at it from different viewpoints. And if the punishments do actually help prevent these crimes and provide solace to the victims, then I’m all for it.

  9. Nadia says:

    “…but I can’t see it being a deterrent for someone who rapes children or someone who covers up child rape.”

    Really? You don’t think this was a shocker to how hard the mighty can fall?

    I agree that those out of touch with reality and who think they’re above it all are largely unaffected by real life. But would, say, a janitor witnessing child rape now realize he’s more likely to be believed after outrage like this? Absolutely.

  10. JP says:

    I have chronic nightmares about my time at Penn State, so I can’t say that I’m too bothered by any of this.

    I really disliked Spanier.

    From an emotional/identity standpoint, aside from the actual victims, I feel bad mostly for the Paterno family, since their identity is actually and actively being shredded.

    The students and the university will eventually recover. Paterno’s family won’t.

    So, the moral of the story is that if you are in a position of power, you had better do the right thing or your family is going to be humiliated.

    Maybe we get some behavior modification at that level.

  11. Topochicho says:

    No, it isn’t fair. And, I think Rob has a little case of “12th man” himself, although it seems to be on the side of the group of people that think “We have to do something about this!”… Either that, or maybe he is loosing his empathy for people who are caught in the middle of something that has nothing to do with them, other than their choice of college. And, as a person who cares nothing about football, nor generally gets caught up in the false “WE” spirit, I think that the students, football related or not, are getting unjustly and harshly punished. Lets not forget that there are plenty of students that “join a program – in this case, PSU” to get an education, & because maybe this is where they got accepted, or it was close to home, and not because of “We ARE…Penn State!”
    Given the fiscal realities of revenue from a football team like theirs, coupled with the already harsh financial fines, this punishment will be grossly over reaching, hurting the students campus wide. Tied in with their reputation loss, this will be devastating to the entire college before all is said and done. Students and faculty will abandon ship, and new students pretend they don’t even exist.

    And that is the point, its not about being “fair”. The point is not to make future pedos think twice, thats not going to happen, nor is it going to make the type of asshole who would shove it under the rug change his mind. The point is to scare the living shit out of every other student, faculty, & administrator, at every other college. Scare them to the point where their balls crawl up in their throats, they turn on every light they can, get out every flash light, and spend all their time looking in the shadows for bogey men… which theoretically make it much harder for a pedo to get away with it.
    Not that it really will, but at least then the NCAA can say “they tried didn’t they”… and after all, it got you talking about how unfair they are, and stopped you talking about how the current college football program creates a environment where an old man can bugger young children for decades and no one says anything about it.

  12. Phat Pen says:

    @Topochicho

    Boo hoo hoo!
    Cry me a river!

  13. Kristi says:

    I’m having a difficult time following the logic, Dr. Dobrenski. You use their oft quoted, “WE are…Penn State” to demonstrate a unity among Penn State fans, students, teams, etc…and try to tie that in as a self-identity when I suppose I view that as a group affiliation(mentality) more than a realized self-identity. Don’t get me wrong, I get the premise as I’m a huge NFL fan who even goes so far as to yearly whip ass on Fantasy Football to make the games that much more enjoyable. It’s fun and I’m a fan. I scream for “my” team when I’m lucky enough to get seats and as I’m from SC, we even have the craziness of Tiger vs Gamecocks to contend with most years. I get that part and the reasoning makes sense to me on that level.

    The callateral damage statement I understand. His family who weren’t involved, his close friends who had no idea, his co-workers who genuinely had no clue, etc… Those feel like true collateral damage to me. I can only imagine the shame, hurt and anger they feel. I’d be seriously disillusioned. I get it.

    Where you lose me is here: …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…

    I would posit that it’s a fairly rational argument to say that when they’re chanting “WE are…Penn State” that the vast majority of those fans, the young men on the football team, who were very possibly investing in a future career, and the vast majority of the some 44,000 strong student body had no idea that Sandusky was a sick bastard who raped little boys. They weren’t chanting, “WE are…Sandusky”. There is a real difference there and to punish them, and this most certainly punishes them, doesn’t feel like “collateral damage” to me. I could be wrong, but it feels more like a way to sooth the public, to me. It feels like a way to pretend to punish because it feels so large, when in actuality it’s not true punishment, at all.

    Sixty million dollars isn’t much as far as Penn State’s budget goes. They’ll survive and live to play another day. The scholarships and the punishment to the players who are quite probably already reeling feels…I guess just another wrong done to the young people of that school, who were already very wronged by this extremely sick man.

    I’ve rarely heard people discuss the “badness” of Penn State as a whole, but more so the completely wrong actions of a few who happened to be associated there as opposed to anywhere elseville.

    So, perhaps since I don’t live in that state, or don’t have the loyalty those fans have to that team, the cognitive dissonance statement threw me, as well. Couldn’t it just as truthfully be said they simply think the actions of the few don’t always reflect the truth of the whole as opposed to having conflicting feelings/beliefs? I guess I would ask this: If one of your psyche professors, who was in extremely good standing in the community, or who was particularly lauded during your years of study, was raping little girls, should the potential shrinks coming from that University no longer be allowed to practice for a while(let’s say until four years after graduation) and all scholarships be cut off, because one part of the whole was rotten? Do those students/staff/faculty/surrounding community actually question if they’re bad, based on the reasoning here? The reasoning just feels off to me.

    But then, I’ll readily admit I think he (and a few others involved) deserved some ungodly punishment that should never be discussed anywhere but with my little inside voice. I can live with that.

    With that novel being written, I’ll also say that I’m not a shrink and doubt seriously that I think in the ways you do. I have a MPhys which I never used because math was fun, but working in Physics sucked. So, I sell real estate.

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