On Thin Ice
Crowd psychology and unfamiliar weather may have played a big role in rowdy behavior on University Street during snowball fight
By Julianne Parker
Sherwin Simmons was on his way to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art to donate some of his old paintings on Friday afternoon when he drove his gray sedan down University Street. The retired art history professor was late, but drove slowly on the snow-covered asphalt. As he neared Johnson Lane, he noticed the street was lined with students – dozens of them. They shouted and started closing in on him, surrounding the car and forcing Simmons to stop.
University of Oregon student Liana Lis was at the snowball fight that UO football players organized to celebrate the first snowfall of the year. She witnessed as participants redirected their aim – rather than chucking snowballs at each other, they focused on passing cars, bicyclists and pedestrians traveling down University Street.
“At the time I had been in the snowball fight it was cool because the people who were there wanted to participate,” Lis said. “But then they started throwing them at cars and I had the gut instinct it was just wrong.”
The first snowball hit Simmons’ car like a fist pounding against the window, followed by a surge of many more. Suddenly, he was blinded by a thick blanket of snow covering his windshield as students pushed snow from his roof across the front of the car.
Simmons figured students would cease fire if he stepped out of the car and they saw a 68-year old retiree standing in front of them.
“I just decided maybe if I get out, they’ll see that I’m 60 years old and I’m a human being,” Simmons said.
The moment he opened his car door, Oregon tight end Pharaoh Brown tossed a bucket-full of snow into Simmons’ face.
Journalism major Tommy Pittenger, who also works for The Emerald’s business department, caught the incident on video. It was posted on YouTube by the Emerald, gaining rapid momentum and spreading across news and social media platforms. The video eventually took the No. 2 spot on Reddit and it’s received more than 1.8 million views on YouTube.
All of that attention and the criticism it inspired has led the university to launch an official investigation.
The University of Oregon Police Department and various university departments, including the athletic department, are working together to identify the people shown and review the conduct depicted in the video to determine possible disciplinary action.
“As far as I can tell, the person in the vehicle was just going about lawful business as a driver and wasn’t asking to be in the situation,” UOPD Communications Officer Kelly McIver said. “It’s one thing to have fun with people who agree to do that and another to involve people who are unwilling.”
Head football coach Mark Helfrich also chimed in with a written statement, as some of the students involved are believed to be the football players who organized the snowball fight.
“On Saturday, I was made aware of an incident that occurred Friday afternoon during the snow day involving multiple Oregon students including members of the football team,” he wrote. “The behavior exhibited in the video is completely unacceptable and dangerous. We take this matter very serious and disciplinary actions have begun.”
After watching the video, UO psychology professor Sara Hodges recognized a typical pattern in the crowd’s behavior, something commonly understood as what’s known as crowd psychology.
“A crowd can be a pretty powerful force when you’re caught up and not thinking of yourself as an individual,” Hodges said. “People might do things they wouldn’t normally do without a crowd’s influence.”
Hodges described the behavior as de-individuation, the social psychological phenomenon that occurs when an individual loses self-awareness in a group setting. Persons in a de-individuated crowd can begin thinking of themselves as part of a group that’s throwing snow and stop thinking of the consequences of their individual relationship with the person in the car who’s not part of the game.
But crowd de-individuation does not always have negative outcomes.
“When cheering at a football game, you’re not thinking of yourself as an individual,” Hodges said. “You’re contributing to something bigger than yourself.”
In this case, Simmons was clearly not a voluntary participant in the activities.
As Simmons exited the car, several snowballs were chucked at him, hitting his jacket and the side of his face. He attempted to talk to several students but with little resolution – no student would admit to involvement when singled out.
“I was disoriented and all I wanted to do was ask why they were doing this and to ask them to please stop,” he said. “That’s it.”
In the background of the video, little can be heard over the cheering, laughing and shouting coming from the crowd surrounding Simmons.
Hodges explained the cheering as a possible motivating factor for the students involved in the snowball fight.
“The crowd is in this mode of cheering people on,” she said. “There’s almost a social reward for participating and being a part of the fun.”
Hodges distinguished several other factors that may have contributed to the progression of what began as a friendly snowball fight and escalated into an aggressive and potentially dangerous situation for the retired professor.
The rare heavy snowfall in Eugene on Friday may have created a situation so unfamiliar to students that they didn’t recognize appropriate behavior, according to Hodges. A university in a snow-heavy location, like Colorado, for example, may have established norms that make an incident like this much more rare.
Other universities across the nation have faced similar issues when fresh snow hits the ground. In 2009, students at East Carolina University organized a snowball fight with more than 200 participants that led to local officers using pepper spray. Earlier this year, a student at Boston University who allegedly threw a snowball at a campus officer was chased down, arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. But in that case, the Boston student also pelted a police officer with a snowball.
Hodges also said that the physical veil the layers of winter clothes created for individuals, paired with the excitement of school closing at 2 p.m. with many people still on campus created an arousing atmosphere where all bets were suddenly off.
Simmons also recognized the crowd’s mentality, expressing relief that he didn’t panic behind the wheel and step on the gas. He feels that could have been an instinctual reaction for some.
“When someone stops a car and stands in front of it, you don’t really know what might happen,” he said. “But the idea that I was parked in my car and would joyfully take part in a snowball fight at 68 years old is absurd.”
Ever since the video began to spread, Simmons has heard from many former students from across the country and world, reflective of the attention it has received. Simmons has made it clear that he has no intention of pressing charges.
“I have confidence that the reaction of the university given what has happened will be proportional,” Simmons said. “It will consider these young people and their futures and will also, I hope, suggest to them that they need to rethink behavior like that.”