Penn State Child Sex Abuse Opinion Wrap-Up

By , November 10, 2011 6:00 pm

All forms of media are blowing up with reaction to the firing of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, the rape and sex abuse charges against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, and the blind eye so many at Penn State turned to it. There’s a lot going on here: idolatry; the culture of college sports; people within institutions not holding themselves and their institutions accountable.

This story is multi-faceted with so many different angles, causes and repercussions, I wanted to put some them together to try to find some context.

First, let’s call these alleged crimes at Penn State what they are writes Tommy Christopher at Mediaite:

The nomenclature surrounding “sex crimes” is already hopelessly sterile, and the media routinely refers to cases of rape and sexual assault as “sex scandals,” but that makes it no less important to call them out every time they do it.

Sandusky is not accused of “having sex” with little boys, he is accused of raping them. In our civilization, “sex” with a child is not possible, since a child cannot consent to sex. As I half-listened to the news all day today, then, and I heard repeated references to “the Penn State sex scandal,” it pissed me off. It made my blood steam a little bit, like a hot cup of coffee.

(I would apply this criticism to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn alleged sexual assault which was often referred to as a “sex scandal.”)

Many have made the connection between the cover-up at Penn State and the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child molestation. Maureen Dowd made it in her Tuesday column in the New York Times:

Like the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State is an arrogant institution hiding behind its mystique. And sports, as my former fellow sports columnist at The Washington Star, David Israel, says, is “an insular world that protects its own, and operates outside of societal norms as long as victories and cash continue to flow bountifully.” Penn State rakes in $70 million a year from its football program.

Lawrence O’Donnell also discussed the failure of institutions and the people within them with with filmmaker Michael Moore on The Last Word.

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There was a lot of reaction on Twitter last night as protesters and rioters took to the streets at Penn State in support of Paterno.

@shayera tweeted:

Why don’t more abuse victims come forward? Just look at the scene at Penn State and I think you have an answer.

@ultraverified wrote:

I remember when college students protested against violations of civil rights, not to defend child molesters and their enablers.

LeVar Burton (yes, that LeVar Burton) tweeted:

Now might be an appropriate time for us to re-evaluate the importance we place on both collegiate and pro sports in this culture!

On this topic of college sports, Buzz Bissinger concluded in The Daily Beast that not only should the entire Penn State coaching staff go..

And so, frankly, should major college football and basketball as it exists now, rotten beyond repair, as has been pointed out a thousand times. Totally disconnected from the academic experience, they are insulated kingdoms with their own rules and reigns of terror because of the money they make, trading in illegal recruiting and illegal gifts and illegal favors, and now, thanks to Penn State, alleged sexual abuse of children by a former coach who must have assumed he would always be protected. Just like a Mafia soldier.

Except that the even the Mafia has higher moral standards.

In the DailyKos, Kevin Powell links the Penn State story to another big story of the week – the Herman Cain sexual harassment (sexual assault?) allegations. He laments, “what a disaster manhood is when it is unapologetically invested in power, privilege, patriarchy, sexism, and a reckless disregard for the safety and sanity of others, especially women and children.”

Every single year, it seems, some well-known man somewhere gets into trouble because of sex, money, drugs, or violence, or some combination thereof (and God only knows how many unknown males do likewise). It is always the same themes, just with a new cast of characters. Yesterday it was priests of the Catholic Church. Today it is the male leadership of Penn State. Yesterday it was Anthony Weiner and Charlie Sheen. Today it is Herman Cain.

He concludes:

If any good can come of the Cain and Penn State disasters it is my sincere hope that spaces and movements are created, finally, where we men can really begin to rethink what manhood can be, what manhood might be. Manhood that is not about power, privilege, and the almighty penis, but instead rooted in a sense of humanity, in peace, in love, in nonviolence, in honesty and transparency, in constant self-criticism and self-reflection, and in respect and honor of women and girls, again, as our equals; in spaces and movements where men and boys who might not be hyper-macho and sports fanatics like some us are not treated as outcasts, as freaks, as less than men or boys. A manhood where if we see something bad happening, we say something, and not simply stick our heads in the sand and pretend that something did not happen. Or worse, yet, do something wrong ourselves, and when confronted with that wrongness, rather than confess, acknowledge, grow, heal, evolve, we instead dig in our heels and imagine ourselves in an all-out war, proclaiming our innocence to any who will listen, even as truth grows, like tall and daunting trees in a distant and darkened woods, about us.

Layers and perspectives will surely develop as the more details emerge from the story. What I think these views show is not just a breakdown in the system at Penn State, but a breakdown of institutions having any consideration for individuals as human beings. When the culture at a university or a church (a church!) prioritizes the perpetuation of itself instead of children, then something is deeply wrong with the people who run the institution.

There’s something to the O’Donnell/Moore interview about how this breakdown happens over and over again. Institutions, corporations, and business are made up of many people. The cultures at those entities are made by the people within them. So, why is it that so many men (it’s often men) can turn a blind eye to repeated and flagrant misdeeds? Part of it is greed, but where did breakdown with these men occur that allowed greed and the need to be right to make them turn away from helping their fellow human being?

Powell suggested “creating spaces and movements” to address this. We must crawl before we can walk, but spaces won’t suffice. If this culture of masculinity is embedded in so many men from childhood, change on this front will require movements. To create a culture where it doesn’t contribute to tragedies like these, masculinity will have to redefined and recreated from the ground up.

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