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Why Are People So Loyal to Joe Paterno?

Our panel of experts explains the science behind why the scandalized Penn State coach is enjoying an outpouring of support.

The parade of Penn State students rallying in support of Joe Paterno quickly devolved into a riot when angry mobs chanting, "We love JoePa," started smashing cars and even flipped a news van. They were responding to the university's decision to fire the legendary football coach after discovering he was implicated in a cover-up of allegations that his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, had sexually assaulted young boys.

Although Paterno informed higher ups about the alleged abuse, he didn't report it to police after the University failed to adequately respond, making it hard to sympathize with the 84-year-old Paterno, who was planning to make this season, his 46th as head coach, his last. Still, supporters of Paterno, who essentially enabled Sandusky to continue abusing boys, have taken their sympathy to fanatic levels; camping on his lawn, destroying property and even reportedly sending death threats to assistant coach Mike McQueary, who says he recounted to Paterno having witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in 2002.

Which begs the question: Why would anyone support, let alone riot for, someone like Joe Paterno? "Not to trivialize the magnitude of this, but the reaction of the fans isn't that dissimilar from what sports fans do all the time," Dr. Sam Sommers, Associate Professor of Psychology at Tufts University, told Men's Fitness. "Who among us that's a sports fan hasn't had to overlook domestic abuse charges in players we root for, or performance-enhancing drug use, or acts of violence or other criminal and immoral behavior?"

Sommers explains that, for anyone subscribing to a belief, it's all about perception. "A lot of people are as passionate about sports as they are about religion and political beliefs. You get two sports fans talking about a close call at first base and, it's not that they're lying to each other, they legitimately see the reality differently."

Dr. David Solly, Professor of Psychology at the University of the Rockies, chalks it up to cognitive dissonance. "You learn some new information that just doesn’t fit with what you've known and believed in the past, so it's natural to reject the new information simply because it's so much opposed to what you've known to be true in the past," he explains. "We basically start out with attitudes towards someone based on the experience we've had. And those will move to beliefs, which are a little stronger. And then, once that's reinforced over time, we basically develop values. The values are highly prized, they're things we vigorously fight to defend and I think in terms of the Penn State folks, they've come to know and love Joe Paterno and believe in him and they firmly believe that he did nothing wrong."

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