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Penn State scandal: Why are Penn State students rallying for Joe Paterno?

Why are Penn State students focused on the loss of the football coach instead of the abused children? Why does the scandal look so different to Penn State students than to outsiders?

By Dave WarnerReuters / November 11, 2011

Kenneth C. Frazier, President of Merck & Co., is surrounded by media after being appointed to chair a special Penn State committee to investigate the alleged child abuse on campus, in State College, Pa., Friday, Nov. 11, 2011.

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

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Philadelphia

The contrast could not be more stark amid one of the biggest scandals in U.S. college sports history.

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After beloved Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was summarily fired on Wednesday night, students poured into the streets of State College, Pennsylvania to protest. They shouted "We love Joe," and a few overturned a television van to show anger at the news media.

Many Americans outside Pennsylvania are bewildered by the reaction, and viewed the emotional outburst as misplaced. The focus, they said, should be on the allegations of sex abuse of children by an assistant coach during Paterno's watch.

"It is really sad for the little kids who were thrown under the bus," said David Spratt, a web site editor in Michigan, referring to the victims of alleged serial sexual abuse by Paterno's longtime assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky's attorney has said his client is innocent.

It is hard to overstate what Paterno meant to Penn State and Pennsylvania, local residents said. Before the scandal, many would have suggested he was the most influential and admired person in the state of Pennsylvania.

Generations of Penn State graduates grew up with "JoePa" and his football machine, which for 46 years brought championships and pride to the university tucked away in the Nittany Mountains of central Pennsylvania.

"It was just a shame how they went about firing Joe," said Jon Reyes, a 1998 Penn State graduate who stopped by Paterno's house on Thursday morning to show his support. "They really disrespected all the years of service he's given."

Beyond Pennsylvania, Bob Schaper, a writer in Rockford, Illinois, just could not get over the fact that no one stopped the abuse when, according to a grand jury report, a graduate student saw a 10-year-old boy being sexually assaulted in the football facility at Penn State in 2002.

"I just don't understand it," he told Reuters. "I mean if you walk into a shower anywhere and you see a man raping a 10-year-old boy, and you don't want to get physically involved, don't you immediately go to your cell phone and call 911?"

Jane Allyn Piliavan, a sociology professor emeritus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison described the whole scandal as "totally bizarre," but said the culture of sports may help explain it.

College athletic departments in the United States -- essentially multi-million-dollar businesses that keeps influential alumni engaged with the university -- are a world unto themselves.

"They get to think quite often that they have different rules," because they are so important to the university and its public image, Piliavan said.

For students, alumni and fans of a university, important bonds are formed that last for the rest of their lives. Paterno was a major symbol of Penn State for them, she said.

"I think they were just reacting to the emotional loss of something that is very important to them," she said.

People generally feel good about themselves when they identify with a group that they see having the same positive characteristics as they do, said University of Wisconsin Psychology Professor Markus Brauer.

"If there is an external threat toward a group member or somebody tarnishes the group, then there is a problem and then the group can have quite strong reactions," he said.

The mentality is: "There are bad guys from outside and they are unjustly treating a member of our group," he said.

"And that seems to be what is going on here."

(Editing by Greg McCune)