Penn State Teaches Rape Culture 101

A man sexually assaults children. Witnesses are appalled. But no one tells anyone outside their tight circle. The assailant is eventually accused of attacking eight boys. Yet members of the community rally around the perpetrator and those who protected him.

I’m talking, of course, of community support for Penn State’s coaching staff, particularly head football coach Joe Paterno, who was fired for protecting defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who now stands accused of 40 counts of sexual abuse.

Shockingly, it’s not especially unusual for communities to rally around perpetrators over victims.

At least when the perps are powerful.

And that all reflects what’s typical of rape culture.

In 2008 a 16-year-old high school cheerleader in a small Texas town said she was raped at a post-game party by Rakheem Bolton, a member of the basketball team. He and two friends forced her into a room to commit the assault. When others tried to get into the room the men fled. Bolton left clothing behind and threatened the homeowner when he refused to return them. Bolton eventually pled guilty to a lesser charge.

School officials responded by asking the cheerleader to avoid the school cafeteria and homecoming activities. And then they kicked her off the cheerleading squad for refusing to root for her rapist. She sued the district attorney, the school district and the principal, but an appeals court ruled against her.

In the summer of 2004 three varsity members of the Mepham High School football team were sexually abused at training camp. The young men were sodomized with pine cones, broom handles and golf balls which had all been coated with a mineral ice that causes severe pain.

Many of the witnesses felt terrible about what had happened. Yet they kept silent.

When the national press broke the story, the community defended the players and coaches. Parents of the abused boys were threatened with death if they pressed charges. Campus rallies were held for the team. When the school administration cancelled football season, Mepham students felt that they had been victimized.

And now, an assistant coach for the Syracuse University basketball team, Bernie Fine, has been accused of molesting two ball boys, Bobby Davis and his step brother Mike Lang. Davis alleges that head coach Jim Boeheim saw Fine molesting him in a hotel room and did nothing. In response, Boeheim has called the two victims–now grown men–money-grubbing liars.

A culture of entitlement, silence and protection lies behind all of the above, says Michael Kimmel, one of the nation’s leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity.

Sports stars are prone to feeling entitled, with schools, coaches, professors and even the police covering for their mishaps and crimes. After all, if the team is damaged, so is the school. And people’s identities are closely tied to their teams.

And so when the Penn State Board of Trustees announced Coach Paterno’s firing, fans became incensed:

  • You said Coach Paterno was fired “in the best interests of the university.” Can you define in the best interests of the university?
  • Why was Coach Paterno informed about his firing over the phone?
  • Was any consideration given as to how this would affect the football program?

Allen Barra over at Salon has an answer:

The football program? The football program?? Are you serious? A former assistant coach was just indicted for over 40 counts related to sexual assault on a child… crimes against humanity — against children — took place in the university’s athletic facilities…

So don’t worry about the football team. Worry about the fact that from now on, whenever the name of Penn State is mentioned, people all over the country — make that all over the world — will be sneering, snickering or spitting. Worry that a long period of penance and healing must begin, and that your actions are delaying this process.

Here we have selfish and shortsighted people who can only think about themselves, and not the pain of others, but who actually work against their own interests in the process—both in terms of how they look and the state of their souls.

So long as we continue cultures of entitlement, silence and protection, we continue our culture of rape.

Originally posted at Broad Blogs and cross-posted at Daily Kos.

Photo of a boy watching a football game by flickr user Ed Yourdon under Creative Commons 2.0


  1. I think you’re twisting this… It reads as if sports is the entitlement program, which is shallow thinking. Anyone can be a predator– doctors, lawyers, police officers, etc. As a victim, I think this article is short sighted and sounds as if written by someone who doesn’t understand the power an adult has over children. As a woman of color, I live in a world where entitlement comes in other forms — not just on the field.

    • Thank you for your perspective.

      I am the one who wrote this and I did not mean to imply that sports is the only place where the phenomenon of entitlement, silence and protection occur. Certainly, sports is just one slice of the pie.

  2. I agree that this article reads as short-sighted. The problems in the Sandusky case go far beyond Penn State. An investigation was done in 1998 by police and no charges were filed. Why? Are we to believe that Penn State controls the police department? I think it’s much more likely that pedophiles protect each other across all levels of society. Sandusky’s current lawyer is a pederast who impregnated a 16 year old, filed her emancipation paperwork, then married her 7 years later. As for people being upset over Paterno, the concern is that due process is being ignored. There is no proof as yet that Paterno knew a boy was raped. IF he did know, he does deserve to be fired. However, if he didn’t know, than he’s just another of Sandusky’s victims (although obviously to a lesser degree). As for people questioning the impact on the football program, well duh. It’s their livelihood. If your place of business closed down because a person who used to run the company was a pedophile, would you think that was just? Would you be willing to sacrifice your family’s well-being because “all that matters are the victims?” How exactly does it help the victims to punish people who are not guilty? I think everyone needs to calm down, take a deep breath, figure out who is truly guilty, and punish those people.

  3. I can’t believe people’s disgusting views of masculinity. I mean, can’t people act masculine… In a good way?!

    Also, I still can’t believe people would do this for the sake of their team. What’s more important, rape victims’ dignity, bodies and future, or winning a game?

  4. I found (from an INCREDIBLY unlikely source) a well composed and well researched blog post that essentially outlines the link between homophobic organizations in which adults have “ultimate authority” over children and pedophilia. I think if more people understood the reality that pedophilia is incur able, dangerous, and facilitated by these organizations, more of them would come under scrutiny. Click here to read it for yourself .

  5. Great article! It really highlights the privilege of sports culture and the secrecy surrounding it 🙂

  6. I am absolutely disgusted by how universities have been handling all of the scandals that are now exploding out of the woodwork. It’s bad enough that they make it near impossible to afford attendance, but they will bend over backwards to protect their major cash cows, their athletic departments, over people, and charge the students the cost of their defense.

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