College Football, Rape, and Cultures of Silence

I don’t even know what to say about the revelations at Penn State — that a respected coach had been raping young boys for years, that men in positions of authority knew that there were problems, yet chose to turn a blind eye to the abuses, that the mothers of these victims found no recourse until more than a decade after their children had been raped (and knew, moreover, that Sandusky was continuing to rape other children), that even now — as I type these words — people are rallying to the support of Joe Paterno.

For those of us who teach and work on campuses where the cult of football enjoys forms of power and privilege not accorded to any other sport (much less academic aspect) of the university, this tragic story is a parable about the protected nature of that sport and those involved in it. We are all now, sadly, so dependent on football for fundraising, for morale, for prestige that few dare criticize it or its centrality. I cannot even imagine being in the position of the graduate teaching assistant who reported that he had seen Sandusky raping a child in 2002, only to have this report buried and re-routed, with no effect. Or the janitorial staff who reported seeing Sandusky performing fellatio on a boy, despite their fears about losing their jobs.

It is unimaginable that senior administrators and staff had no idea what was going on, particularly given the serial nature of Sandusky’s crimes. When there is that much smoke, you can’t ignore it. Any senior faculty members in an academic program absolutely know about colleagues who are serial sexual harassers because you hear about them again and again and from multiple people. And at the end of the day, you either have to do the right effing thing or you cover it up to protect your power, your status, and your programs.

The folks at Penn State took the latter course because there was money at stake and reputation and power and a football program that generated millions of dollars a year. And at the end of the day, that turned out to be more important than the safety of children.


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