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Pat Myers Nov 21, 2011

Penn. State: The Power of Culture

I am in the midst of teaching a course on social justice in which I use Sue and Sue’s (2008) well known text which requires an examination of areas of personal and systemic prejudice, bias and privilege. It is within this framework that I have been assessing the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State. Rereading Mark Kiselica’s introductory remarks (who coincidentally attended Penn State for his doctorate) was a timely reminder that we are both the products of and contributors to our culture. As I’ve read numerous articles on what the Penn State story entailed it has become clear that the culture at this university both produced and supported behaviors and beliefs while maintaining spoken and unspoken rules around who could speak up and who would be believed.

The very environment that encouraged students to work hard and excel, as students and as athletes, created the situations that allowed a man in a position of power to sexually abuse children with little fear of repercussion. In fact, it seems that others intentionally looked away, and were supported culturally to do so, rather than to upset the status quo and speak up to protect children. We all know that collegiate sports occupy a premier position in this country. We value our sports and the coaches and players who sacrifice to entertain us. Collegiate sports departments provide needed revenue for schools and needed entertainment for the country. Often the highest paid employees of colleges and universities are found in the athletic programs. The Huffington Post reports that in 2010 the revenue from the Penn State football program was $70.2 million with a profit of $50.4 million. News reports broadcast during the reporting of this story have stated that the city surrounding the university was substantially built on the success of the university and the football program. So much was built on the rock of the university that making the invisible sexual abuse visible, would have cost the football program, the university, and the surrounding community a substantial amount of money. Even more it would have required a close examination of the dark side of a culture that was sacrificing vulnerable children for the sake of being winners.

It is within this backdrop of power and money, winning and recognition that this story unfolds. One way to understand how this story could have been written for over 15 years without anyone forcing the chapter to end was due to the power of the culture. Penn State provides stability to the surrounding community. The head coach was and is a hero in the eyes of many and a man who has served the university as coach and benefactor for decades. A walk around the campus is a pictorial biography of this man’s contributions on and off the football field. The men who were hired as coaches and administrators were there primarily due to his success. This dynamic in part explains why nothing was done to stop the sexual abuse. In an article in Sports Illustrated by L. Jon Wertheim and David Epstein, a former employee reacted to the head coach’s firing with “It is amazing to think what one man can do to a whole heroic institution if the reaction is faulty”. Sadly, this story is not about one powerful man’s lapse of judgment. It is about a systemic lapse in judgment, a systemic faulty reaction.

Sue and Sue write that ‘social justice is…about building a healthy, validating society for all groups” (p.25). The authors go on to state that a goal of any society should be, in part, to make the invisible cultural experiences and beliefs, visible. An important aspect to make visible is the reality that those in power have the ability to define reality as it suits their purposes. Penn State’s story centers on denying the visible child sexual abuse and on allowing powerful others, such as University officials and coaches, to define the truth of sexual abuse as something innocuous. Many of the articles I reviewed in writing this blog referred to ‘the good old boys” network where bad behavior is overlooked while the offender is moved from position to position (often up the ladder rather than down) in an attempt to feebly protect the innocent downplaying the truth of injury while not having to do the dirty work of speaking the truth.

Believing a child’s story would have required substantial systemic change and that cost was judged to be too high by those who held the power in the system. All who kept quiet about the truth of the sexual abuse were conspirators in retaining the status quo (evidence of being both products and contributors to our culture). Those few who did speak up were not believed and they lacked the power to make sure that they were listened to or to define the reality as one that was serious and needed attention. This process seems to have reoccurred numerous times over the past years and each time a new abuse story surfaced, the person was marginalized and the story was squelched or redefined as trivial. Those in power had the authority to deny the concerns of a mother who wondered why her son being taken to football game required him to shower with the man who was supposedly mentoring him. Those in power had the authority to disbelieve the eye witness testimony of those blue collar janitorial workers who might just be telling tales. Power lies in those with degrees, titles, position and money, not in those who carry a broom to clean the offices or the football stadiums. Those in power had the authority to inform their superiors of the stories they’d be told or the incidents they’d witnessed instead of filing reports with the police. Those in power had the authority to frame the acts they witnessed as having sex with children, implying a consensual relationship, rather than naming it child rape and sexual abuse. Telling the truth that this man, who had served as an assistant coach and who developed a charity to help young troubled boys, was a sexual predator simply would have blown apart the carefully constructed cultural reality of the university and the football program. The secret must be kept as it was tied to keeping the status quo.

If we want to change the system so that this scenario doesn’t continue to happen then those of us who are outraged by the injustice have to speak up and act. This horrific story reminds me of the saying that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing. Those of us outraged by this story must do something to change our culture. I do not have to be a mindless recipient of my culture’s values. I can increase my cultural self-awareness and embrace those aspects of culture that are “healthy and validating” and work to change those aspects of culture that are discriminatory, unhealthy, or invalidating. I may not be powerful but I gain power in speaking the truth. I promise that I will speak up whenever I see a child being hurt emotionally, physically or sexually. I promise that I will call the police and appropriate authorities to report what I have witnessed and that I will keep talking until the abuse has stopped and the offenders are brought to justice. I promise that I will work to make the invisibility of crimes against innocent men, women and children visible and that I will not look away and pretend nothing happened. I promise that I will not stay silent with the kind of secret that allows those with power to harm those with none. I promise that I will use the power I have to work for social justice in my place of employment, in my house of worship, with my friends and family, and within my community. I promise that I will use the power I have to work for social justice by holding the politicians that I vote into office accountable for their actions and the legislation they support. I believe we have a choice. We can be horrified by this story and place all the blame on those at Penn State. That is the easier path to take. The other option is to take what has been learned from this nightmare and work to change what can be changed.

Patricia Myers is a counselor, an associate professor of counselor education, and doctoral student.

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