But what about the children who were allegedly harmed by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky under Paterno’s watch? Uneasy jokes are flying today about the “pro-pedophilia rally” in State College last night—but Galinsky points out that the people accusing the students of not caring about the victims are missing the big picture. “Our interpretation of facts are incredibly clouded by our own perspective,” he says. The students recognize Paterno’s mistakes, as evidenced by their many statements to the press, but being so involved in the Penn State community, they do not judge his mistakes as harshly as outsiders do.
And leaders in general are hard to indict, especially those like JoPa who have near-mythical stature. The idea that a living person can be deified is not surprising from an evolutionary point of view. A crucial component of the social cohesion that allowed our human ancestors to survive was religion, explains Freek Vermeulen, associate professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the London Business School. Religion “centers on myths and deities,” he wrote. “This inclination for worship very likely became embedded into our genetic system, and it is yearning to come out and be satisfied, and great people such as Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, and Lady Di serve to fulfill this need.”
Joe Paterno is both a deified leader and the living symbol of Penn State, inextricably bound up with the identity of the students who reacted so emotionally last night. In that light, it makes more sense that they took to the streets. Although the vandalism cannot be justified, if we recognize the root of the students’ feelings it may help us reconcile their loyalty to Paterno—inconceivable to many outside the Penn State community—with the disturbing story of child molestation that has been revealed over the last several days. “Don’t judge them harshly,” Galinsky says. “If you were a member of that community with that identity, you would have had the same reaction.”