Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno and Penn State Fans: Investments of Sympathy and Identity

Curator's Note

Attesting to the power of media, Jerry Sandusky's first public interview after the Penn State scandal broke (and head coach Joe Paterno was fired after a glorious half century)  was with Bob Costas. In this interview Sandusky admitted only to "horseplay," not sexual misconduct. (Interestingly, this Sunday Syracuse also fired Bernie Fine, Assistant Basketball coach, for molesting boys). Many Penn State students voiced disappointment over their institution's dented reputation.  But consider a different reaction from fans of the football team.  They  expressed their resentment over the firing of Paterno; over 109,000 fans thronged the football stadium at a recent game that the team lost.  Surely this solidarity is noble, deserving of admiration.  Still we must ask anew,  Is sport fandom as likely to distort moral compasses as to build character, as customarily supposed?  In extreme instances, this distortion is alarming and poorly understood. Students not only rallied for Paterno; some went so far as to overturn a WTAJ newsvan on campus, as though blaming the media for spotlighting the scandal.   The Penn State scandal is only one extreme example:  Americans will remember images of O.J. Simpson in his white Bronco on the highway as fans crowded onto the freeway cheering him even though they knew he was a suspect in the alleged murder of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Such admittedly extreme cases prompt the question, How could fans allow their fandom to override a fundamental human sympathy with the real victims?  (Contrast with the Catholic Church scandal.)

One common rationalization for bad behavior from fans is to shrug one's shoulders and say boys will be boys (more or less Sandusky's lawyer's comment about Sandusky himself).  This underestimates the cultural significance (signifying power) of sports, fails to appreciate how deeply fans invest their self-images, their ego ideals, in sport. This is particularly significant with masculine identities and football.  There is also an ethical requirement for fans to ask what it is that they are so passionately defending if not something critical to their identities, to ask themselves if in vehement support of "JoePa" they are investing their sympathies/identities on the wrong side of an ethical (from "ethos") line.  My question for readers: are there effective ways to use (social) media to encourage fans/protestors to be motivated less by possible hurt to football and moved more by possible physical or psychic damage to the 8 boys Sandusky allegedly molested over 15 years?


Samir, you interrogate a number of important issues here. First, I'd like to address the question you pose to readers. There is a group of Penn State alumni who started a website called "Proud to be a Penn Stater" to raise money for RAINN, an organization that provides services to victims of sexual assault. The alums use Twitter and Facebook to encourage donations. The site is -

I highly commend these alums for trying to make something positive out of a truly tragic situation. The last update I heard was that they had raised almost half a million dollars - extremely impressive. However, the website and media intereviews by the group's founders focus heavily on rehabilitating the tarnished image of the university rather than raising awareness about sexual assault or RAINN. While reinstating Penn State's credibility is important, it does not focus on the victims and seems to be more self-seeking than altruistic. Child sexual abuse is an epidemic that demands society's attention. I hope the crimes at Penn State can be a teaching moment and provide insight into that issue.

To learn more about victims of sexual assault and how RAINN provides help, visit their website at

I'd like to end my comments by directing attention to the point you raised about masculine identities and football. A recent op-ed in the New York Times argued that if McQueary walked in on a 10 year old girl (instead of a boy) being raped, he would have stopped it immediately and called the police. Do you agree or disagree with this assertion? How does it relate to the cult of masculinity in sports and in society at large? How would the situation have been different if it were high school girls? Or college-age females? What questions does that pose?

Hi Samir, an excellent first entry for this week's series!

I think Darcey hits a very important point on the head in her response that will probably be recurring as we find fans supporting those that we wouldn't expect them to throughout the week:  we are very invested in rehabilitating the images of our affiliations, especially given the signifiying power sports holds, as pointed out by Samir.  Hence, our reactions to sporting scandals are often designed to reduce the cognitive dissonance we experience when our heroes either fail us or are portrayed to have failed us.

The NY Times op-ed is an interesting one, and actually ties to the signifying point rather disturbedly.  Was McQueary possibly disturbed by anyone finding out about male adult-on-MALE child sexual abuse moreso than just being disturbed by any abuse?  Not being there, we can't know for sure, but the question certainly lingers.  The continued use of the word "horseplay" introduces an interesting element to the conversation, as though this scandal somehow disrupts the heteronormatizing of male contact that would otherwise be considered sexual (consider how athletes are patting each other on the butts all the time in goal celebrations, for e.g.).

Were it a college female, would she have been derided for even being there in the first place?  The issue of female reporters in locker rooms has raised an interesting spectre of the masculine world of which boys are raised to become a part.  Some players take offense to having to change clothes while a female reporter asks you about why you muffed a punt.  Yet make that same reporter male, and no one even raises an eyebrow. 

Combined this institutionalized isolation of males within sports with an unwritten code that men should be able to "fend for themselves," as it were, and that if they are boys, that is what they are in sports to learn how to have one reason why Mike Hartill suggests that organized sports contribute to male child abuse.  That's a rather dangerous proposition to consider for a nation that loves its sports, but one worth discussing even if you do not agree with it.

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Thanks for these helpful comments. Darcey, you raise important questions.  I too was struck by the NYT op-ed arguing that "if McQueary walked in on a 10 year old girl (instead of a boy) being raped, he would have stopped it immediately and called the police." You asked if I agreed, and how this relates to the cult of masculinity.  Would the situation have been different if it were a girl? 

First, there was some hocus pocus about McQueary vacillating on his report that he did nothing.  In email(s) he claimed he did in fact interrupt the rape of a boy; that's not what he told police.   This has become fodder to Sandusky's legal team.   To your main questions I can only say I'd be devasted if McQueary made a "differential" decision. To think he would have  preferentially intervened on behalf of a girl rather than a boy is devastating.  First, it suggests that same-sex victimization is more shameful and dishonorable (what kind of sexual calculus is this?).  But does it also suggest that male victims are less deserving of protection or intervention--more dispensable? Does it suggest that while it would be construed, once word got out, that McQueary was being chivalrous if he had "saved" a damsel in distress, it is not quite as glamorous to enact this chivalric code in an all-male triad of victimizer, victim and savior?  This kind of differential calculus would be shameful, if it went through McQueary's mind.  And Bryce, I think you're right on about another cultural meme in play here, that males should be able to defend themselves.  This displaced machismo would be a misplaced burden on a boy who is being raped.

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