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Should We Be Mourning Joe Paterno? Homosexual Acceptance and the Prevention of Rape

We should all be mourning right now. We should all be paying tribute to the man who served as the mentor for hundreds of young adults. However, the events of the past six months have changed our perception of this man. Or at least they should have. Unfortunately, many people would rather ignore these recent events as they mourn the death of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno.

I am appalled by the tribute Joe Paterno received after his death on Sunday, January 22, 2012. ESPN and major news outlets such as CNN and The New York Times published long tributes to the memory of Paterno, describing him as “more than a coach” and as a “symbol of integrity in collegiate athletics.” A mass candlelight vigil was held at the Penn State campus, as dozens came to his bronze statue to weep, leave flowers, and reminisce about the icon of the Pennsylvania state college. Penn State’s president Rodney Erickson related that Paterno will be “honored…for his remarkable life and legacy” and that the university is “deeply saddened.” In light of the events of the past six months, this tribute is disturbing.

Joe Paterno, coach of the Penn State football team for 46 years, obtained more wins than any other coach in college football history. However, Patnero was seen as more than a coach to Penn State—he was seen as a father, serving as a mentor and role model not only to the football players but to everyone in the university. Paterno made it his duty to guide his players both on and off the field and made generous financial contributions to Penn State. Penn State, in return, erected a bronze statue of him in front of its football field, Beaver Stadium.

This past November, however, Paterno’s defensive coordinator, Jerry Sandusky, was arrested on over 40 counts of sexual assault. It was revealed that Paterno had been informed of Sandusky’s actions in 2002 and that Paterno had not notified the police, though he did inform his supervisor. Paterno was criticized for not notifying the authorities and was immediately fired from his job at Penn State on November 8, 2011. Soon after, he was diagnosed with Lung Cancer and died on January 22, 2012.

Though Paterno did nothing illegal, Paterno is responsible for not taking the necessary steps to stop Sandusky. Had the police been notified in 2002, countless acts of sexual abuse could have been prevented. Some of the victims of abuse may never live normal lives, requiring numerous hours of psychotherapy, and studies show that victims of sexual abuse are at a high risk for criminal activity, depression, and suicide. It is possible that some of these boys will never live normal lives. These lives could have been salvaged had somebody had the courage to stop Sandusky.

I believe that these events and the reactions to them, or lack thereof, reflect a sad reality in the way society views sexual abuse of males by other males. Male rape is simply not considered “rape.” From the very beginning, nobody could come to accept the fact that Sandusky was raping boys.

Assistant Coach Mike McQueary testified that he witnessed Sandusky raping a ten-year-old boy. Why did McQueary not intervene? McQueary, a 36-year-old man, was certainly not afraid of a 68-year-old Sandusky. McQueary proceeded to tell Paterno, who later informed Penn State’s president, about the events. Shockingly, none of these people, all prominent and high-ranking in their fields, called the police. How is this possible? They probably thought that this was simply a slight mistake on Sandusky’s part and would probably blow over. The notion that Sandusky had raped a boy was probably incomprehensible.

In a New York Times opinion piece, “Secret Dread at Penn State,” Bard College professor Daniel Mendelsohn asks, “what if it had been a 10-year-old girl in the Penn State locker room that Friday night in 2002?” This question is jarring, mostly because we all know the answer. McQueary definitely would have tried to stop Sandusky. At the very least, he would have called the police. Everyone understands what is happening when a girl is raped; when a boy is raped, many people, including the law, minimize what is happening. Only recently, on January 6, did President Obama officially include male rape in the legal definition of “rape.” Paterno himself stated in an interview with The Washington Post, “I never heard of rape and a man.” According to the US Department of Justice, 3% of American men have been raped (as opposed to 17% of women). How is it that Paterno and the American legal system have “never heard of” male rape?

I believe that it is society’s general non-acceptance of homosexuality that has caused this casual attitude toward male rape. Though homosexuality is no longer illegal, the virulent anti-gay rhetoric espoused by many religious institutions and politicians makes it seem like there is something “wrong” with homosexual behavior. This is especially true in the sports world. There are virtually no openly homosexual professional athletes in the United States. Sports is seen as masculine, while homosexuality is not, so homosexuals have no place in sports. It was inconceivable to McQueary and Paterno that their expert defensive coordinator was engaging in homosexual behavior. Male rape will never be taken seriously until we start to accept homosexuality as a reality and not as the workings of the devil or as a psychological disease, something our country has yet to fully do.

Let us not to be too quick to idolize our cultural icons and raise them on a pedestal. It is great to have positive role models, but nobody, not even Joe Paterno, is infallible. To the mourners of Joe Paterno: Just try to keep in mind what every victim of Sandusky’s sexual abuse is probably thinking as they see you on TV, weeping by the statue of your demigod. His inaction has ruined their lives.