Manhood After Joe Pa’s Silence

If learning the truth about what had been going on for years at Penn State University won’t move men to challenge rape culture, what will? For men, it’s long past time to leave the sidelines of indifference in the face of grievous acts of troubled men.

The facts: Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator under legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, was arrested on 40 counts related to charges he raped eight boys beginning in1998. Well loved Paterno, the winningest coach in college football history, and Penn State’s president, Graham Spanier, were summarily fired. And, the university’s athletic director, Tim Curley, and a vice president, Gary Schultz, were indicted for not calling police following a grad student’s eyewitness account of Sandusky anally raping a 10 year-old boy in a campus shower. Heard enough?

Paterno did the bare minimum, reporting what he heard about his longtime assistant only one rung up the chain of command. While legally in the clear, morally Paterno missed the goal by a wide margin. No points scored and a lifetime penalty. His silence was deafening. But because of how university trustees dealt with Coach Paterno, perhaps a first was achieved: a bystander who didn’t intervene was harshly punished.

Out of the scandal at Penn State may come some good: the sexual abuse of boys hopefully will no longer remain invisible as it mostly now is—“kept under the tight cloak of domination, stigma and internalized masculinity,” as Men’s Resources International’s Steven Botkin reminds us (www.mensreourcesinternational.org). “The impact of this reality feeds the male violence machine in ways we may not yet fully understand. Our collective silence about this part of the system means many of its victims go unrecognized and limits our capacity for intervention and prevention.” Botkin believes it is when men recognize their relationship with the experiences of perpetrator, bystander, and/or victim, that we can become most effective as change agents.

So now is the moment for men to pick up the remote and change the channel. The message on a popular New England sports talk radio station was this isn’t a sports scandal but a men’s scandal. It’s about time the language was accurate. Time, too, for us as men to stop watching from the sidelines. There’s the whistle. Ready or not, we have to get in the game.

Here’s a simultaneous truth: Most men are good guys who don’t abuse women, girls, boys, or other men. Still, the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of abuse against women, girls and boys are male. So while the minority abuse, assault, rape, sometimes murder, we look away mouthing our sorry excuse, “That’s not me.” While it may be true about any of us personally, it ignores our responsibility collectively to insist we work to end rape and abuse.

Women, girls, boys, men should be free both from actual harm and the threat of abuse. Women have long been on the front lines of efforts to end domestic and sexual violence. For more than a quarter century, many men have joined them, challenging the masculine culture of aggression even as it tries to bully us. We need more men to mobilize now—from tiny hamlets to urban centers.

With the culture of sports at the center of this sordid story of men behaving inhumanely—criminally—can we finally change direction? Can we uncover what it is about men’s training that produces Jerry Sanduskys? These questions can no longer be ignored.

In this national manhood emergency, football is the perfect cultural symbol, one that can serve as a catalyst for masculinity teach-ins on campuses and in communities nationwide. Right now groups like Coaching Boys into Men (www.CoachesCorner.org); Mentors in Violence Prevention (www.sportsinsociety.org/vpd/mvp./php); and the Waitt Institute (www.wivp.waittinstitute.org/), to name a few, are poised to lead trainings. And, in every state, sexual and domestic violence prevention coalitions are working night and day to stop the violence.

Let’s reach out first to the riled up students at Penn State. Let’s get ESPN andSports Illustrated to broadcast and cover the teach-ins. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the NCAA, can finance not just semester long teach-ins but a sustained national educational campaign. They certainly have deep enough pockets, having turned college sports into a megabusiness.

“The bottom line,” says activist-writer Kevin Powell, “is that our notions of manhood are totally and embarrassingly out of control…[S]ome of us have got to stand up and say enough, that we’ve got to redefine what it is to be a man… But to get to that new kind of manhood means we’ve got to really dig into our souls and admit the old ways are not only not working, but are painfully hurtful to women, to children, to communities, businesses, institutions, and government, to sport and play, and to ourselves.” As he says, “Looking in the mirror is never easy but if not now, when?”