Those of us who live in State College have learned to organize our lives around football. Some of us tailgate, go to games, and root for the team—living and breathing the Penn State football aura. Others, like me, post the schedule on our fridge so that we know when NOT to leave the house.
For us, Penn State football is mostly about traffic, an influx of tourists, and long lines at the grocery store. Regardless of where one sits during the game, though, recent events have forced all of us to think about football culture. And they have forced us all to think about what it means to be a man—both a “good” one and “bad” one—in the midst of that culture.
Male football culture was immediately under suspicion when the community learned that a former coach, Jerry Sandusky, had been accused of multiple acts of sexual assault on boys. Not long after that shocking revelation it appeared that Sandusky had been enabled by a series of men that had turned a blind eye, or worse, while he continued to bring boys to campus facilities and molest them. What sort of culture of secrecy had made this possible? Why would Sandusky be protected over the victims? How could grown men witness Sandusky assaulting boys and not intervene? How had the allure of Penn State football played a role in helping Sandusky attract his victims? Had the power of Penn State football kept them quiet?
While these questions swirled through the minds of most of us living in Happy Valley, I had a somewhat unique experience. The day immediately following the announcement by Penn State’s Board of Trustees to remove University President Graham Spanier and football head coach Joe Paterno it was my job to teach my class on “Human Rights and World Literature.” And of all of the possible books to fall on that day, I was slated to teach The Kite Runner.
The Kite Runner is set in Afghanistan and it follows the story of a young boy who fails to protect his friend, Hassan, when he witnesses him being raped by another older boy. The entire novel revolves around the implications of his failure to do the right thing, to be good. Amir, the protagonist, is morally weak, a coward, and easily intimidated by the boy rapist, Assef. Assef loves the control he has over the boys in the neighborhood. Later he grows up to be a major figure in the Taliban, which gives him even greater opportunity to rape children and punish the community. In the middle of these two models of masculinity we have Amir’s father, Baba, a man who is not ethically perfect but who tries to teach his son that a good man must be willing to stand up for his convictions, to defend the weak, and to contribute to society.
In the midst of these male role models Amir’s job is to figure out how to be his own kind of man. And it is his job to determine what it means to be a good man. As the novel unfolds Amir finally is offered a chance at redemption, a chance to choose a different action. In a twist of fate that only seems possible in novels, he returns to Afghanistan to rescue Hassan’s son who has become Assef’s latest victim.
I use the novel to teach my students about a culture that seems quite foreign to them. I teach it so that they can have a closer connection to a community that has suffered and still suffers the ongoing effects of war and loss. The novel asks whether good acts can be really considered good if they are done simply to assuage feelings of guilt. It also asks how one can recover from making a terrible moral mistake. You failed to intervene, to be courageous, to protect an innocent. But what about the next day? And the next? The novel’s motto is “There is a way to be good again.” And at the end of the novel it seems that Amir has found his answer.
I had always considered the novel to be helpful in building a bridge between my students and Afghans. I had considered the novel’s stark moral contrasts to be a bit extreme, but they also offered us opportunities to ask ourselves what we would do if faced with similar dilemmas. The Penn State scandal suddenly made the book immediately relevant as a way to think about our own crisis. This was a novel that was all about men; every major character is male. And that extreme also created an opportunity for us to think about the connections between masculinity and ethical behavior.
The major players in the Penn State scandal are all men. Even the administrators that were not part of the football program are all men. All of the victims were boys. The only person to go directly to the police was a mother of one of the victims. These are the facts. And all gender politics aside, these facts force us to think about what this crisis will mean for the men and boys in our community.
We have the figure of Sandusky, who is accused of some of the most heinous crimes one can commit. He is charged with 40 separate accounts of child sex abuse. Then there are the men that witnessed Sandusky’s acts, Mike McQueary and Ronald Petrosky. Both of them appear to have been too intimidated by Sandusky to protect the victims and stop the acts they had seen. Then there are the university leaders, President Spanier and Coach Paterno, who allegedly heard about the acts and did not vigorously pursue justice. Paterno’s own name only serves to reinforce his role as a father figure to the university.
And we can’t forget Athletic Director, Tim Curley, or Gary Schultz, the school’s senior vice president for business and finance who had oversight over the University Police. They have both been accused of perjury in the case since it seems that they covered up knowledge of Sandusky’s acts of abuse and then lied about it. In one of those stranger-than-fiction realities our new child care center on campus is named after Schultz. Imagine the feelings of parents as they take their kids there to spend the day.
It gets worse. The Second Mile, the charity Sandusky founded in 1977 to help disadvantaged boys, seems to have served as a conduit for Sandusky’s access to victims. In the midst of news that senior leaders of the charity did not adequately respond to accusations of Sandusky’s sex abuse, Jack Raykovitz, The Second Mile’s president has resigned. Raykovitz is a practicing psychologist, which makes it very hard to explain his alleged inaction. The Second Mile served about 100,000 kids a year and, no doubt, made a positive difference for many of the boys it served, but the scandal has been so severe that it appears that it will soon close.
We have layer upon layer of men, all of whom seem to have collaborated to create a culture that allowed boys to be victimized in the worst imaginable way. The pain we are feeling here is linked, at least in part, to the fact that many of these men were community leaders, role models, idols worshipped by girls and boys alike. Some of these were the very sorts of men that parents hoped their boys might grow up to be.
All of those illusions are now shattered. What worries me, as the mom of a six-year-old boy growing up in this town, is that we will have become so disgusted by all of these men that we will lose any sense of what ethical masculinity looks like. And regardless of whether we were raising our boys on football culture or not, this scandal has had a measurable effect on all sorts of male behavior. I have heard fathers casually remark that they won’t be coaching soccer next year since they can’t handle it. I have seen the stiff and restricted body language of dads picking up their children from school. I have heard friends express regret at the work they did to raise money for The Second Mile.
This is where The Kite Runner comes in. The novel teaches us that inaction and paralysis cannot be the response to moral failure. In the face of such shame and disgrace, we cannot respond by closing down, by turning inward. They call these defining moments. But what definition will remain? The culture of suspicion, betrayal, and abusive power has seeped into our ideas of masculinity, but it can’t be allowed to define it. The images of masculinity put on display in the last weeks run from disturbing to revolting. These can’t be the only images we offer our boys. Now, more than ever, we need to find a way to teach our boys that part of growing up means learning how to be ethical. It means learning how to respond to life’s challenges with dignity and integrity and courage. And then we need to help them do it.