Where Football Is King, Alleged Crimes Sometimes Get a Pass

Critics say devotion to the coaches behind powerhouse Penn State blinded some.

November 13, 2011, 5:58 PM

Nov. 13, 2011— -- Penn State alumna Kristen Houser said she was glad to see fans out in force at the Nittany Lions' game Saturday in T-shirts focused on the allegedy victims in the scandal that has rocked the school and its legendary football team.

But the slogan, "Stop Child Abuse," didn't go far enough in her eyes, because it left out a key word. The charges against ex-assistant coach Jerry Sandusky are child sexual abuse.

"Inserting that word, 'sexual,' really changes things," said Houser, vice president for communications and development for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, which has counted sexually abused boys among its clients since its inception 35 years ago.

If the omission was an unconscious oversight -- and she said she believes that's the case -- it nevertheless suggests something about how difficult it's been for many in her football-fixated hometown to face the charges being ferreted out against Sandusky and, by extension, the powerhouse Nittany Lions, the university and the town that grew up around it.

Penn State, she said, "is a cultural hub. When people want to see sporting events, they go on campus. When they want to see a play, they head to the theater on campus. The people who sit on the board for Second Mile [Sandusky's charity] are local business people."

Houser is a Penn State graduate who, as student activist 20 years ago, pushed for heightened policing and publicizing of on-campus sex crimes.

"People see Joe and Jerry at the grocery store. Joe would walk to the stadium from his house on game day and you would walk behind him," she said. "So, this whole community is struggling with this sudden glimpse in the mirror…"

And it is hardly an appealing sight, USA Today sports writer and ABC contributor Christine Brennan said today on "This Week with Christiane Amanpour."

Of Mike McQueary, the Penn State assistant coach who allegedly saw Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in a campus shower in 2002: "I believe he thought he was doing a lot, that he was going above and beyond by going to legendary head coach Joe Paterno's house the next day and telling the revered coach what he saw.

"In this case, unfortunately, in this world of college football, Joe Paterno is bigger than the police," Brennan said. "These college programs, people love them. People watch them. I've been around them for decades … They're living in an entirely different world than you and I."

It's fair to ask why McQueary didn't take more forceful, immediate action, given what he says he witnessed, Houser said.

It's also fair to question the lack of more forceful action by Paterno, 84, who coached Penn State for 46 years before Saturday's match-up against Nebraska -- the Nittany Lions lost during what was a described as a somber, reflective afternoon, she said.

Paterno, along with former president Graham Spanier, who called the charges against two university officials accused of failing to report the allegations to police and then lying to investigators "groundless," were fired by the school's board of directors last week.

The delayed response to the alleged crimes against the eight boys owe, in no small measure, to the social dynamic in a town where Paterno and Sandusky each have held their own, singular gravitas, Brennan and Houser said.

"There was such a culture, a group-think that was either in denial or either knew about Sandusky and didn't want to go any further with it," Brennan said. "We'll get to those answers eventually."

A grand jury began hearing testimony about the charges against Sandusky, 67, in fall 2009, when a then 15-year-old boy testified that there had been four years of inappropriate contact between him and Sandusky, whose Second Mile nonprofit aids athletes and other youth who are low-income or otherwise at-risk.

Founded in 1977, it reportedly reached 10,000 youths statewide through summer and year-round camps, and had been honored as a "Point of Light" by then President George H.W. Bush in 1990.

Those kinds of accolades -- to say nothing of Penn State's near perennial status as a sports powerhouse -- fed the notion that the college and its highest-profile people could do no wrong, House said.

"There was a feeling of infallibility," she said. "It may not sound rational or logical to someone who didn't grow up here, but it feels like we were told part of our childhood is a lie. That speaks to how Joe Paterno and Penn State were icons, and how much he, the institution and Jerry Sandusky, have meant to this community."

During a week spent in State College, Pa., population 42,000, initially to deflect attention from the riotous student protests over Paterno's firing, it had been hard to "gain traction" on the central issue of alleged sexual abuse of children, Houser said.

She spent much of that time offering a corrective to people on Twitter about what should be the proper labeling of the alleged crimes.

"Someone would tweet that it was a 'sex scandal' and I'd tweet back," Houser said. "It's rape scandal, a cover-up scandal, a child sexual abuse scandal. Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton -- those were sex scandals."

Whatever the verdict in Sandusky's case, the allegations involving the former assistant football coach can serve to highlight the need to discuss child sexual abuse more openly and plainly.

Such abuse of boys especially needs to be brought to the fore, said University of Massachusetts clinical psychologist David Lisak, who works with men who have raped boys and boys who have been raped. Boys, he said, are less likely to disclose sexual assault than girls.

"Predators tell us that they know this, and that they target boys specifically because of that," said Lisak, who is on the board of directors of 1n6, a national organization for male abusers and the abused. "As a culture and a society, we still have a fair amount of trouble accepting that boys can be and are sexually abused. Actually, they're sexually abused in far larger numbers than most people realize."

The other side of the coin is that terms like "predators" and "monsters" and "stranger-danger," discourage people from thinking that someone they know and trust could be an abuser, Houser said.

"We label people with these names that we would never apply to ourselves or our friends, which, oddly, is how people end up seeing all the red flags and ignoring them," she said.

Or how, when it comes to heroes in football or other celebrated arenas, the victims sometimes end up being blamed, she said.