People often talk about absent men, fathers who are not there, male role models lacking in boys’ lives, but what about when the men are everywhere and nowhere to be seen? In the case of the allegations of sexual abuse in the Penn State football program the men were not, and are not, there. And this sexual abuse case in the Penn State football program is a program wide problem, even if the alleged abuser is the only man who harmed children directly, because, make no mistake, the one accused of abuse relied on the silence of those around him to continue his reign of terror on the souls and bodies of young boys. This is about men and boys, masculinity and power, truth and cowardice. It is about men who were willing to let boys continue to be sexually abused because of twisted views of what it means to be a man, and how powerful men want themselves to be seen and treated. Think about this: Penn State football is about no-nonsense, tough defense; it is Linebacker U, strong, straightforward and in your face; it is hard hitting and direct. Young men learn about teamwork, how to support each other and play hard and what it means to be tough. Unless, as the direct testimony of then grad assistant Mike McQueary states, a 10 year old boy is being raped in the shower.
Apparently, an abused child is someone you all run away from, not even learning his name, or ever finding out what happened to him, even if he is still alive. Not only do you not rally around to protect him, you try to run away and cover up the story and go on with tough, direct, straightforward football, teaching these college athletes how to be men. How could it be that the power, strength, directness and toughness went away? How is it that a grad assistant, the head coach, the AD and other administrators – leaders of men – never learned the name of a boy who Mike McQueary stated was being raped in public? Why could they not protect him? What were they scared of? Why did they allow the man who one man claimed from direct witness to be a child rapist remain a friend of the program, with an office in the building, still bringing boys some years later to the same sites? How could they all pretend it was okay?
This is a story about men and boys. This is not a story about the evil of men and the saintliness of women, but try a thought experiment. You can make any excuse you want for these men, but picture your mother (or grandmother, sister, wife or daughter) walking in on a scene of a child being raped, and ask yourself, what would my mother do? Would she walk away from the child? Would she go consult with someone as to the best course of action? Would she report to her higher up and consider that her legal and moral obligations were met? Or would your mother, as frail and aged, or as tough and young as she is, be saving a child from the clutches of a destroyer of children by any means necessary? Why did these men not meet their moral obligations?
The problem is that for men, who often define themselves by honors received, power, wealth and accolades gathered, keeping up appearances can become a never-ending charade. If we define ourselves by the stereotypical male traits – no weakness, always in control, always in charge - our self-definition must always and everywhere be a lie. Perhaps it is true that there is genuine power, honor, wealth and reputation we have for short periods of time, but ultimately none of this lasts or matters. Someone stronger comes along, someone more powerful comes along, someone with more wealth comes along. Honors go, wealth is ephemeral, accolades are showered on someone else and power fades as we age and someone else takes our place. What we are left with are the people we loved and cared for and who loved and cared for us and the legacy of our behavior, not shinily polished press releases touting our legacy. Finally, we all die. As Jesus teaches us, we are all weak and dependent upon others, and primarily, we are dependent upon God for our very being and others for the goodness of life, in our relationships, and to meet our human needs. This is why Jesus told his apostles – all men – that at the heart of their mission was service to others (“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”: Mark 9:35) and the model disciple was a child:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:1-4)
You do not tell on a man who is alleged to be raping a child, or call him to account, apparently, because the things you want to preserve – reputation, job, friendships, money – are more important than a child’s life. This is the lie of a certain type of masculinity, which does not want to admit weakness, but wants to be known as “the greatest.” The truth must take precedence over these disordered desires before this false masculinity can be unmasked, not just in others, but in each of us. For what Jesus was getting at is that we are all weak and powerless and frightened. The most powerful men in the world, those who have it all, were once children and will one day be old men if they live that long, frail, maybe unable to feed themselves, or take care of their most basic needs. A false masculinity tells us to be “unlike” children, to always be strong, mean and tough, but it is hard to maintain appearances for we know it is a farce, a masquerade. To maintain the farce we must create victims and bully them, scare them and hurt them, let them know that someone tougher is in the room.
This works for a while. On the football field, it works until you get too old or your body breaks down, or until you get injured or someone tougher than you comes along. You can victimize children, those smaller, weaker, more vulnerable than you, who you can push around or force to do your will, until someone stops you from doing evil, until someone unmasks your lies. So why did Jerry Sandusky, according to the charges against him, get away with victimizing children for so long?
Because the men who were there did not behave as true men. An abused child is weak, vulnerable, scared and hurt – they open us up to the reality of human evil and the pain and weakness of life. I want to suggest that the reason the Penn State men did not act is because they were protecting themselves, their images, myths, jobs and reputations. They were cowards because they did not have the courage to face the truth. Their friend and colleague, according to the indictments handed down, was sexually abusing and harming children, but they could not find the power and strength, the courage and toughness, in themselves to bring it to an end and their friend to justice. That would have meant facing their own weakness, the possibility of the loss of reputation, a scandal, and perhaps even job loss. Better to turn away and pretend to be molding real men on the football field, where you cannot be frightened by things like the truth of weak, abused, vulnerable and hurt ten year old boys. Better to serve your own interests than those who unmask the false masculinity of power, honor and reputation. But it is with the weak, the vulnerable, the scared and the hurt that Jesus says real men emerge. Who is the greatest? “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). For whom is honor reserved? “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37). It is tough to be weak and vulnerable as a man, but it is even tougher to be an abused child and wonder where all the men have gone.
Updated: Tonight the Board of Trustees at Penn State University fired Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier, the university president. It is not clear that the former football coach yet understands his (in)actions or those of the school administrators, as he spoke to his football team today,
Earlier Wednesday, Paterno talked to his team for about 10-15 minutes in an auditorium of the football facility on campus. Standing at a podium, he told players he was leaving and broke down in tears.
Tears for the loss of his job, tears for his players are understandable; but does he understand he is not the victim?
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens