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In my opinion

It has happened here

Let’s not fool ourselves that the Penn State pedophilia scandal is an exclusively U.S. phenomenon.


We Canadians recoiled from the series of events that swamped Pennsylvania State University in perhaps the most offensive scandal in the history of big-time university sport in the United States. The revelation that an assistant football coach at one of the storied athletic programs in the U.S. had committed several sexual acts against young boys in a university shower-room was scarcely believable. Even worse, the response of university authorities from President Graham Spanier to the immortal coach, Joe Paterno, made it clear that many insiders knew about the activities and proclivities of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, which continued for 15 years, and ignored them.

In Canada, few if any sports teams approach the glory of Penn State football. The coach was god-like, the players at Penn State walked the campus as demigods, and home games brought out students and alumni across generations the way Mecca attracts Moslems and the Pope’s masses in St. Peter’s Square draws Catholics. Some faculty – who clung to the belief that Penn State was an institution of higher learning – averted their gaze. Others willingly endorsed that culture and accepted the fruits of that culture.

There is some good news here for Canadian universities, reflecting the different realities that separate us from our American neighbours. A different sport culture here keeps institutions at a point where most big-time U.S. football and basketball programs were before the advent of network and cable TV money, endorsements and athletic scholarships. Although some basketball programs in Canada are top-notch and although football programs at the University of Regina and Université Laval enjoy significant private financial support, still, academics still prevail over athletics. Faculties and students still control intercollegiate athletics at most Canadian universities.

For another thing, where would the money to fund big athletics programs come from? Markets in Canada are too small to promote the behemoth sport factories that allow American coaches to make more money and wield more power than university presidents and foster situations that allow players to cross too many legal and ethical lines.

Canadian scholars like Varda Burstyn, Bruce Kidd, Laura Robinson, and Brian Pronger have shown that American college sport promote not only spirit and courage but also a pathological hyper-masculinity that often finds outlets in problematic ways. In no other venue is “homosociality” so accepted. Homosociality is, in essence, the process by which athletes bond on and around fields of battle. Burstyn, in her book The Rites of Men, underlines several pathologies that can accompany athletic camaraderie, on and off the field. Pronger probes the sexual interstices that provide an often unspoken homoeroticism which borders on, but need not encompass homosexuality. Indeed, the homosocial environment of sport generally abhors homosexuality in favour of outward toughness and the demonstration of power. Such behaviour takes form in hockey fights, dirty hits on the football field, and numerous other situations where male force seeks to dominate. It can become a breeding ground for misogyny, as Frank Costigliola demonstrated in his recent Cold War study while assessing Soviet and American diplomats and their sometimes orgiastic social life in Moscow during the 1930s; it can also encompass pedophilia.

Simply because our college athletics are not as important or competitive as in the U.S., Canadians should not be complacent. Pedophilia is an atrocity that has happened here, there, and everywhere. Transgressions like Sandusky’s have occurred in myriad cultural sites where adults in positions of power oversee children and adolescents without supervisory accountability. We need only consult our sordid history of lives ruined in our country’s aboriginal residential schools, hierarchical cover-ups involving the Catholic Church, and assaults by junior hockey coaches, choir-masters, scout leaders, and other adults in youth sport and activities. We need to see our own complicity in all of this.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has handed Penn State a $60 million fine; a four-year ban on bowl games; and the order to vacate all football victories back to 1998. Whether the death penalty for football would provide a more apt punishment remains moot. The report on the scandal by independent counsel Louis J. Freeh said that its “most saddening finding … is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.” The cover-up at Penn State will resonate in law courts for years to come as witnesses recount the tragic story. But there is a lesson for all of us here. We must reject once and for all what psychologists deem the bystander effect, which makes it hard for people to intervene as good Samaritans, or as any kind of Samaritan at all.

Geoff Smith is professor emeritus at Queen’s University. He taught courses in history, sport sociology, and health studies. He also played and coached basketball for many years.

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  1. Dr. Robyn S Walters / August 23, 2012 at 11:28

    Dr. Smith is uninformed, in my opinion. This article shamefully jumps on the media bandwagon regarding the events at Penn State. The ‘Freeh Report’ is vehemently denied as inadequate and blatantly false in conclusion by most alumni (athletes and otherwise), the family of Joe Paterno, former President Spanier, and the accused (not convicted)Mr. Curley and Mr. Shultz….as well as the most of the faculty, staff, and students of this renowned university. The conclusions of the Freeh Report have been taken as gospel (even though these ‘investigators’ did not interview any of the above accused nor Mr McQuery) and unbelievably ‘accepted’ by the current President and Board of Trustees (some of who had knowledge of the external allegations against Sandusky since 1998). This acceptance appears to be an effort to ‘move on as quickly as possible’ by PSU admin, but has allowed the NCAA to impose the most extreme penalties ever dealt a university without even doing their own investigation. Again, no one was interviewed, the lack of evidence against Joe Paterno, Shultz, Curley, and Spanier in this report is appalling in a legal sense – and the conclusions were beyond biased. Due process has not been afforded either Mr Paterno or Mr. Spanier…and Shultz and Curley have yet to have their day in court.

    The outrageous condemnation of an entire university for the act of one man, however heinous, is appalling and says more about a society than the recipient of such ire:

    “Anyone that rises, any greatness, attracts those who would cut it down at the roots….any fool knows that.. – Barbara Kingsolver, The Lacuna”

    We who STILL ARE PENN STATE know that it is about academic excellence, the nature of kindness and civility in State College, the advances and goodness of the research and productivity of the university, the ultimate sense of community that will always exist, and the pride, not arrogance, of the individuals that are the substance of this venerable university.

    Please note: The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) has released its 2012 ranking of the top 100 world-class universities and has ranked Penn State at No. 49. This is only one of many accolades that have nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky….or even Paterno, Spanier, Shultz and Curley.

    Jerry Sandusky can rot in hell in all of our eyes, and we of Penn State were as blind-sided by him as the rest of the world. These types of men and women will always exist somewhere – Penn State UNIVERSITY was not immune to that, but also not responsible for his sick and atrocious actions.

    I am horrified at the nature of the media and public opinion response to these events since last November, the lack of human compassion for what Penn State has suffered….indeed, the ‘piling on’ effect without real knowledge of the context of events nor the real nature of those being accused, in hindsight, of covering up now.

    Paterno is not alive to defend himself nor testify to these new accusations , but he has testified under oath to not have understood the severity of the events from what McQuery expressed to him in 2001. He was never charged with any criminal offense by any entity. Nonetheless, he may have felt some internal discomfort/distrust with Sandusky (??from rumors of the – external to PSU – failed accusations of inappropriate behavior in 1998) because Paterno essentially removed Sandusky from the football program that year by telling him he would never become head football coach at Penn State (Sandusky, not having many options, thereafter retired – and it was the PSU Admin that negotiated his retirement package, including his continued use of athletic facilities).

    The idea that the naysayers of the world know enough about any of these events to make judgments about Penn State University as a whole – other than that this monster perpetrated many of his crimes on the site – is patently absurd and tellingly shameful.


  2. geoff smith / October 8, 2012 at 11:41
  3. geoff smith / October 9, 2012 at 12:21

    An update on Penn State. The sentence is as it should be — essentially a life sentence.

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