Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach who died in January just three months after a child rape scandal had stained his reputation, left behind more than a flock of adoring fans and a growing band of critics. His legacy now includes inadvertently energizing the movement to stop the sexual abuse of children. There’s more. That the heinous actions that came to light took place in the athletic world also offers a rare, national opportunity to raise questions about the culture of sports and the silence of men.
Paterno did the bare minimum, reporting only one rung up the chain of command what was reported to him about his longtime assistant, Jerry Sandusky—seen raping a 10-year-old boy in a university athletic department shower. 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. How much more did that eat at him than did the lung cancer officially cited as the cause of his death?
Although officials could have done much more, by firing Coach “JoePa” (who, it was reported, planned to retire at the end of the season), the university changed the rules of the game: No longer would hush-hush trump sound the alarm. Going forward, the precedent now is: a bystander who doesn’t try to intervene, who doesn’t try to stop an act of abuse, will be held accountable.
Programs and organizations like Coaching Boys into Men, Mentors in Violence Prevention and the Waitt Institute, among others, are poised to lead trainings on this lesson. They have long facilitated workshops for students and staff on bystander intervention—learning the how and why of speaking up.
The college football season ended without the general public hearing much from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). That was a lost opportunity for the NCAA to exercise leadership in tackling the issue of sexual abuse. There still is time. Well before college players return to training camps this summer, the NCAA should announce they are financing—not just a one-shot teach-in at Penn State—ongoing trainings at colleges and universities across the country. What is needed is a sustained, national campaign addressing sexual assault, male socialization, and the masculine culture of violence. Money for such an effort is not an issue since the NCAA long ago turned college sports into a megabusiness.
In every state, sexual and domestic violence prevention coalitions are working night and day to stop the violence; they also can and should be tapped. And men’s antiviolence organizations including Men Can Stop Rape, A Call to Men, and Men Stopping Violence, among others, can play a role in an all out effort.
Starting at Penn State, let’s get ESPN and Sports Illustrated to broadcast and cover the teach-ins nationwide—so students especially can see this is a national crisis, not just a campus scandal.
“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?”
The truth is, most men are good guys who don’t abuse women, girls, boys, or other men. A simultaneous truth is 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.”
Men have a long history of colluding with other men in codes of silence, said Ted Bunch and Tony Porter in a statement posted on their A Call to Men website (acalltomen.com), not long after the Penn State revelations came to light. “This pervasive silence among men in our culture to protect the status quo, to win at any cost, and never tell on your brother is a glaring example of how destructive the current model…of manhood operates to demean, diminish and oppress anyone… not considered a ‘real man’ in our society. Our fear of being perceived as less than a man or weak, keeps us in line with these codes, regardless of right and wrong.” To too many, being a whistleblower is out of the question, especially after our boyhoods reinforced the message of never being a tattletale.
Only when men recognize our relationship to perpetrator, bystander, and-or victim, can we become most effective as change agents. Wherever the silence comes from, it ignores our collective responsibility to insist more men join women in working to end rape and abuse.
Out of the scandal at Penn State may come some good: the sexual abuse of boys may no longer remain invisible, “kept under the tight cloak of domination, stigma and internalized masculinity,” as Men’s Resources International’s Steven Botkin reminds us. “The impact of this reality feeds the male violence machine in ways we may not yet fully understand,” Botkin says. “Our collective silence about this part of the system means many of its victims go unrecognized and limits our capacity for intervention and prevention.”
Women have long been on the front lines of efforts to end domestic and sexual violence. They and girls, boys, and men should be free both from actual harm and the threat of abuse. For more than a quarter century, more and more men have joined them, challenging the masculine culture of aggression even as it digs in, continuing its efforts to bully us. Beyond all the trainings and teach-ins, we need individual men to mobilize right now—from isolated rural outbacks to teeming urban centers; from high up in the grandstands to the sidelines at midfield. There’s the whistle; what are we waiting for?
A version of editor Rob Okun’s commentary appeared Thanksgiving Day at Women’s eNews (www.womensenews.org). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.