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Let's Talk Turkey About Manhood After Penn State

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Allegations of child sex abuse at Penn State provide a teachable moment for male sports culture--and the rest of us: Being silent can now get you in trouble. Rob Okun says the NCAA should start running teach-ins about the new game rules straight away.

Subhead: 
Allegations of child sex abuse at Penn State provide a teachable moment for male sports culture--and the rest of us: Being silent can now get you in trouble. Rob Okun says the NCAA should start running teach-ins about the new game rules straight away.



(WOMENSENEWS)--It's Thanksgiving. Time to gather, feast and maybe check out the big game.

Along with all that, let's not miss the chance to digest the cultural role sports play in our lives--and in our male silences--in the wake of the multiple charges of child rape reverberating throughout Penn State and beyond.

The message on a popular New England sports talk radio station recently was that this isn't a sports scandal but a men's scandal. It's about time the language was accurate. Time, also, for us as men to stop watching from the sidelines. Listen up. There's the whistle.

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And here's the game changer: Because of how Penn State trustees have dealt with the powerful and beloved coach Joe Paterno a precedent is set: Going forward, a bystander who doesn't intervene and do enough to stop an act of abuse can expect to be harshly punished.

Right now groups like Coaching Boys into Men, Mentors in Violence Prevention and the Waitt Institute, among others, are poised to lead re-trainings on this lesson. They have long led workshops for students and staff on bystander intervention, learning the how and why of speaking up.

With the end of the college football season at hand, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) should announce it will finance not just a one-shot teach-in next semester at Penn State, but an ongoing training program at colleges and universities across the country. What's needed is a sustained, national educational campaign addressing sexual assault, male socialization and the silence surrounding the masculine culture of violence. The NCAA certainly has the money to underwrite such an effort, having turned college sports into a mega business.

In every state, sexual and domestic violence prevention coalitions are working night and day to stop the violence; they can and should also be tapped. And men's antiviolence organizations, including Men Can Stop Rape, A Call to Men and Men Stopping Violence, among others, can play a role in an all out effort.

Breaking News Hibernation

The facts for anyone coming out of news hibernation: Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator under legendary Penn State football coach Paterno, was arrested on 40 counts related to charges that he raped eight boys beginning in 1998.

While Sandusky and his lawyer have spoken out against a media lynching and reminded us all of the presumption of innocence--a cornerstone of our judicial system--emotions are running high, especially after revelations of a possible high-level administrative cover-up following a 2002 incident.

But in the meantime, the chips have already fallen, hard.

Well-loved Paterno, the most winning coach in college football history, and longtime Penn State President Graham Spanier, were summarily fired. The university's athletic director, Tim Curley, and a vice president, Gary Schultz, were indicted for not calling police following a grad student's eyewitness account of Sandusky anally raping a 10- year-old boy in a campus shower.

If any of these charges are true, it would seem that Paterno did the bare minimum, reporting what he heard about his longtime assistant only one rung up the chain of command.

While legally in the clear, morally Paterno missed the goal by a wide margin. No points scored and a lifetime penalty. His silence was deafening and encompasses that of many men.

In the days ahead, let's reach out to the riled up students at Penn State, the ones who first came to Coach Joe Pa's defense. (It should be noted that before Paterno was fired, other Penn State students held a vigil in support of the victims.)

Starting at Penn State, let's get ESPN and Sports Illustrated to broadcast and cover the teach-ins nationwide so the students can see this is a national crisis, not just something surrounding them.

Redefining Manhood

"The bottom line," says activist-writer Kevin Powell, "is that our notions of manhood are totally and embarrassingly out of control . . . [S]ome of us have got to stand up and say enough, that we've got to redefine what it is to be a man . . . But to get to that new kind of manhood means we've got to really dig into our souls and admit the old ways are not only not working, but are painfully hurtful to women, to children, to communities, businesses, institutions and government, to sport and play and to ourselves." As he asks, "Looking in the mirror is never easy but if not now, when?"

The truth is, most men are good guys who don't abuse women, girls, boys or other men. Still, the overwhelming majority of perpetrators of abuse against women, girls and boys are male. So while the minority abuse, assault, rape, sometimes murder, we look away mouthing our sorry excuse, "That's not me."

Men have a long history of colluding with other men in codes of silence, said Ted Bunch and Tony Porter of A Call to Men in a press statement, not long after the Penn State revelations came to light.

"This pervasive silence among men in our culture to protect the status quo, to win at any cost and never tell on your brother is a glaring example of how . . . the current model…of manhood operates to demean, diminish and oppress anyone . . . not considered a 'real man' in our society. Our fear of being perceived as less than a man or weak, keeps us in line with these codes, regardless of right and wrong," they said.

Agents of Changes

Wherever the silence comes from, it ignores our responsibility collectively to insist that more men join women in working to end rape and abuse. Only when men recognize our relationship to perpetrator, bystander and-or victim, can we become most effective as change agents.

Out of the scandal at Penn State may come some good: the sexual abuse of boys may no longer remain invisible, "kept under the tight cloak of domination, stigma and internalized masculinity," as Men's Resources International's Steven Botkin reminds us.

"The impact of this reality feeds the male violence machine in ways we may not yet fully understand," Botkin said. "Our collective silence about this part of the system means many of its victims go unrecognized and limits our capacity for intervention and prevention."

Women, girls, boys and men should be free both from actual harm and the threat of abuse. Women have long been on the frontlines of efforts to end domestic and sexual violence. For more than a quarter century, many men have joined them, challenging the masculine culture of aggression even as it continues to try to bully us.

We need more men to mobilize now--from tiny hamlets to urban centers--from the grandstands and the sidelines.

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Rob Okun, editor of the print and online magazine, Voice Male, is former executive director of an antiviolence men's center and maintains a psychotherapy practice in Amherst, Ma.