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Hypermasculinity and sexual abuse: The silent lessons of Penn State

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Last week, former FBI director Louis Freeh released his extensive report on the Penn State sex scandal and no one at the university was spared from his damning criticism.  For months, Freeh and his team of investigators interviewed 435 people, and examined over three million documents, to put together a comprehensive picture of over a decade of systematic sexual assault committed by an assistant coach in the football program.

The report demonstrates that Penn State officials not only knew about the victims of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assaults, in fact, they routinely covered up the accusations in order to prevent any negative publicity from developing.  Even when the police began actively investigating Sandusky in 2010, Penn State officials continued to hide the sexual abuse.  As a result of the investigation, two university officials are now facing perjury charges, and now there is public pressure for either the Pennsylvania government or the  NCAA to impose the so-called ‘death penalty’ for the fabled Penn State Nittany Lions football program – that is, banning the team from the league.  Former head coach Joe Paterno, once a tremendously popular figure in NCAA circles and - according to some - the most powerful man in the entire state of Pennsylvania during the reported molestings, died of lung cancer earlier this year.  Were he alive today, however, he would be facing criminal charges.

Joe Paterno's personal fall from grace has been dramatic - but is it the whole story? (Illustration: Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch.)

When assistant coach Mike McQueary told coach Paterno in 2001 that he witnessed Sandusky sexually abusing a young boy in the shower, Paterno reportedly told university officials that they needed to treat the incident 'humanely' by not turning Sandusky over to the police. The fact that Paterno and Penn State officials denied that same ‘humane’ treatment for Sandusky’s victims is certainly an indication of their own cowardice and insensitivity, and it is hard to argue against those who seek to severely punish the individuals most directly involved in the cover-up.

Explaining Penn State

While the Freeh report does well to document what happened at Penn State, very little in the report addresses the much more fundamental and important question: why did an entire apparatus of Penn State coaches, officials, administrators and authorities choose to protect a pedophile rather than stand up for his victims?  The report shows that Penn State officials facilitated Sandusky’s pedophilia because they were scared that it would bring unwanted negative attention to the football program, which makes the university millions of dollars every year.  Last year, for instance, the football program turned a $50.4 million profit for the university, so it could certainly be argued that financial considerations led university officials to become indifferent to sexual abuse on campus.

This is surely an important piece of the puzzle, but it is not the whole story.  People are outraged about Sandusky’s crimes and the subsequent cover-up because they rightfully believe that Penn State officials should have never put the program above the lives of young men and boys.  But can the entire Penn State cover-up be explained by pointing to the financial considerations that led a handful of individuals to behave irresponsibly?  To be sure, these individuals did demonstrate a chilling capacity for irresponsibility and cowardice.  But surely we need to dig deeper to go beyond the belief that a few bad men were to blame, especially when Freeh’s report reveals that many people were implicated in the cover-up.

Let me be clear: if the assumption is that this tragedy was allowed to happen because Penn State was run by a handful of irresponsible men, then presumably the solution would be as simple as ensuring that only truly responsible men should be allowed to run university football programs.  In fact, most responses to the scandal have asserted just that - if more responsible men had been in charge of the Penn State football program, Sandusky would have been turned over right away and much of the misery he created could have been avoided.  Crucially, this assumption is framed in language that suggests that Joe Paterno and his colleagues’ irresponsibility was ‘unmanly’ and that ‘real men’ would have done the right thing.

These explanations are limited because they rely on the relatively simple suggestion that the sexual abuse at Penn State could have been prevented if Paterno and university officials had not concealed Sandusky from the authorities.  But there is a difference between dealing with sexual abuse once it has happened and preventing sexual abuse from proliferating in the first place.  In order to prevent sexual abuse from thriving in a climate of silence, males must be able to express emotional sensitivity.  Thus, a more complicated and thoughtful understanding of contemporary sport suggests that Sandusky’s career of sexual abuse was actually aided and facilitated by the dominant culture of masculinity, which is pitifully ill equipped to prevent sexual abuse.

If the problem was simply a few irresponsible, ‘unmanly’ men, then we might be led to believe that the Penn State scandal was an unfortunate aberration rather than a disturbing reflection of what passes as typical male behavior in sports today.  Sandusky’s crimes were, indeed, facilitated by irresponsible men, but Penn State’s systematic cover-up is more of a reflection of the overall state of dominant masculinity today than a tale about how some men aren’t living up to the masculine roles they were taught. That is, rather that viewing Joe Paterno as someone who deviated from the dominant masculinity with devastating consequences, the more terrifying reality is that Joe Paterno’s behaviour is actually consistent with this version of masculinity – which I will refer to as hypermasculinity – that currently holds sway over much of sporting culture.

Hypermasculinity and Social Irresponsibility

While the dominant narrative wants to blame a handful of individuals for not reporting Sandusky’s behaviour, the fact is that there were people who tried to intervene, but no one wanted to hear it.  There is a difference between not knowing and not wanting to know.  Some, like assistant coach McQueary, took action by outing Sandusky to coach Paterno.  Sure, McQueary should have told the police, but the fact that he told Paterno, the most powerful man at the university, should not be downplayed. It took courage for McQueary to tell Paterno what he saw in the shower. Paterno could have easily turned Sandusky over to the police and maintained much of his prestige – maybe even bolstered it through a demonstration of moral fibre - and the reputation of his football program would have suffered relatively little.  The claim, then, that Paterno and Penn State officials protected Sandusky because they wanted to protect the image and profitability of the football program does not explain everything.

Instead, I would like to propose that we look a little closer to home, at the very culture of sport. Specifically, I want to spotlight the dirty role of hypermasculinity in the Penn State scandal.  Hypermasculinity manifests itself in a variety of ways in sport – Tyler Shipley’s article on the persistence of homophobia in hockey culture from last week’s Left Hook provides one window into the pervasive and harmful effects of a masculinity that reinforces itself through violence and homophobia.  It can similarly be argued that hypermasculinity requires its weak, feminine ‘opposite’ or ‘other’ to justify itself, which leads to all kinds of sexist and misogynist behaviours and institutions in sport.  This is taken up at length in Gamal Abdel-Shahid and Nathan Kalman-Lambs Out of Left Field: Social Inequality and Sports.

These are important critiques of the way that hypermasculinity is produced as ‘normal’ in sports.  But it is equally crucial to recognize that hypermasculinity is more than simply an issue of male aggression and physicial violence.  Hypermasculinity also involves a powerful internal disciplining – a deeply repressive mechanism that men are expected to take up and embody – that is akin to emotional numbing.

Emotional paralysis is connected to the aggression and violence that we more typically associate with hypermasculinity.  After all, it is well understood (by military training programs, for instance) that most people cannot routinely engage in violent behavior if they have developed and maintained their sensitivities and empathies to the world around them.  In The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks notes that the dominant form of masculinity today “encourages men to be pathologically narcissistic, infantile, and psychologically dependent on the privileges.”[i]  Indeed, it is hard to imagine that the Penn State scandal would have carried on for as long as it did if Paterno and his colleagues had nurtured a masculinity characterized by emotional sensibility and tenderness.

Penn State student Emily Wilkins responding to the Sandusky cover-up. (Photo: Reuters.)

We cannot encourage men to promote and engage in hypermasculinity in sports and then expect them to simply turn it off when they leave the playing field.  Like the way that soldiers are trained to be ‘killers’ on the battlefield and then routinely bring those violent tendencies back to their civilian lives (the example of Canadian Col. Russell Williams is instructive), athletes are taught to be ruthless on the field/court/ice, to seize upon their opponents’ every weakness, to press every possible advantage, to win at all costs. The sports media routinely (to the point that it has become painfully cliché) reinforces the idea that athletes must ‘hate’ their opponent - that victory comes not necessarily from the best application of skill but, rather, to those who ‘want’ it most, which necessarily means wanting victory more than wanting to be a good person.

And yet, the same sporting world occasionally turns on its own when society deems that one athlete or another has ‘crossed the line.’ Recall the reaction against the NHL’s Todd Bertuzzi when he sucker-punched Steve Moore in 2004, for which he is still facing civil charges.  Though obviously inappropriate and motivated by the desire to hurt his victim, Bertuzzi didn’t actually stray significantly from the established norm in NHL violence (compare the Bertuzzi punch to this attack by Shea Weber from this year’s playoffs, for which he only received a fine).

Consider also the way that the sports world had to turn on the NFL’s New Orleans Saints when it became public knowledge that the coaches were paying players special ‘bounties’ for injuring particular players on the other side – are we to believe that this, too, was an absurd exception to the rule in a league where violence is the primary spectacle for sale? When athletes - whose violence in their sport is celebrated – express that same violence in their private lives, it is treated as a shocking anomaly, as when the NBA’s Ron Artest was sentenced to community service for shoving and slapping his wife.  Logic suggests that Artest is no anomaly.  Surely it involves a bizarre kind of doublethink to pretend that encouraging a violent, hypermasculine culture in one realm will not shape the way that masculinity plays out in other spheres?

A Deeper Understanding

With this in mind, we need to get past the naïve belief that Penn State was an isolated affair, especially since the stories of systematic abuse-and-cover-up continue to pile up, reaching what abuse victims are increasingly calling ‘epidemic proportions.’  Failing to properly understand the dynamics that make this possible will only mean that these horrors will continue. In order to carry out the Sandusky cover-up, Penn State officials did exactly what hypermasculine men are routinely taught to do: they shut down their feelings and tried to suppress the feelings of others in order to maintain their privileged positions.

A couple of years back, my brother, who has suffered from drug addiction for well over a decade, told me one night that he had been sexually abused by his baseball coach when he was very young.  I was the first person he told and it devastated me.  I told him how sorry I was that he didn’t feel safe enough to tell me when we were younger.  He didn’t really respond.  I knew that the shame was likely far greater than I could ever imagine, but nonetheless, I asked him why he didn’t tell our parents.  His answer was blunt: “I thought Dad would have killed the guy.”  For people who didn’t grow up with a physically abusive father, my brother’s claim may appear somewhat dramatic, but it was not.  My father would have exacted physical revenge on the child molester.  So my brother, naturally, was scared to tell my parents because he thought that my father would attack the man and likely have to serve jail time afterwards.  What kid would want to be partially responsible for their father going to jail?  Consequently, my brother kept secret – for over 30 years - the fact that he was sexually abused by his baseball coach.  The one thing that I learned from my brother’s experience is that hypermasculinity not only creates problems, it exacerbates them by blocking off the channels of communication and the necessary conditions for healing – tenderness.  Try as they might, the most hypermasculine of males cannot use violence to solve emotional problems.

Sadly, my father still does not know about my brother’s traumatic past.  My brother wants to tell our father, but he is terrified about how he will take the news all these years later.  I spotlight the experience of my family as a way of showing that preventing sexual abuse is much more complicated than simply knowing that sexual abuse if happening.  I am sure that my brother would have told someone sooner, had he not been worried about my father potentially killing someone, or that he, himself, might be interpreted as gay.  He was literally dying to tell someone about the sexual abuse.  Similarly, if more of Sandusky’s victims had been surrounded by more emotionally sensitive males, there is a good chance that Sandusky would not have been able to injure so many lives.  If the dominant form of masculinity is healthy, then how is it that only a few victims and a couple of concerned parents managed to come forward in all that time?  Even as I write this section, ESPN has just revealed that three more men have come forward to accuse Sandusky of sexual abuse in the 1970’s.

Alternative Masculinities?

Given how depressing this article has been, let me end on a promising note. While men – and especially athletes - are routinely socialized into believing that hypermasculinity is the only acceptable form that masculinity can take, a quick look around reveals that some athletes succeed, more or less, in rejecting the glorification of violence and developing deeper emotional intelligence in their journey to the top of their profession.  Hypermasculinity need not be a prerequisite for success in sports or life.  The challenge, of course, is that sporting culture is a reflection of popular culture in general and, as a result, the media and sports fans often ridicule and discipline athletes when they do display emotional maturity and care for others.  Standing up against violence in sports is considered uncool in most sports circles because it challenges the highly ingrained belief that violence in sports is the mark of masculinity par excellence.

Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin represents a very different version of masculinity from the hyper violent norm. (Photo: AP.)

Consider the reaction by fans when the captain of the Vancouver Canucks hockey team, Henrik Sedin, spoke out this spring against the belief that violence in playoff hockey can be justified because the stakes are so high and players will do anything to win.  “A lot of people think 'That's playoffs,'” he noted.  “You can't just defend everything with, 'Oh, it's playoffs.'  That's a mindset I don't really buy into and I don't understand.”  The next night on Hockey Night in Canada, Don Cherry, a highly influential figure in the hockey world, chastised Henrik on national television.  Cherry declared that Henrik doesn’t understand playoff hockey because he does not understand that hockey is and always has been a violent sport.  No one in the media defended Henrik from Cherry, which is symptomatic of how naturalized hypermasculinity has become in hockey today.  Suffice it to say, Henrik knows that hockey is violent, but insists that hockey does not need to be a violent game.  It is an ugly brand of masculinity – one that has little care or respect for other people – that makes hockey a violent profession for players in North America.

The fact that no one in the media defended Henrik is indicative of how the culture of hypermasculinity dismisses and silences players, who do speak out against violent or destructive behavior.  We need to support athletes who express a healthy, responsible masculinity.  I highlight the case of Henrik because I believe that -- if we are to have any chance of creating a safer and more enjoyable world -- his version of masculinity offers a much better model for kids and men. If we are serious about preventing further Penn State tragedies from happening in the future, then we need to ensure that men start modeling their behavior after men who demonstrate truly socially responsible masculinities.  As Joe Paterno and other Penn State officials have shown us, hypermasculinity is incapable of dealing with effects of its own selfishness and violence.

This article was originally posted at Left Hook: A Critical Review of Sports and Society.

[i] bell hooks. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York, Atria Books, 2004, p. 117.

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