Tom Matlack wonders if the Penn State incident remained hidden for so long because what happened was beyond the scope of men inside football to even comprehend.
Daniel Mendelsohn, a professor at Bard College and well-known critic, asks us in today’s New York Times to consider the role of gender and homophobia in the events at Penn State.
“WHAT if it had been a 10-year-old girl in the Penn State locker room that Friday night in 2002?” he asks us.
His answer is that everything would have been different. The rape of a female child by an old man would have fit into the neat groove of what to do as a studly football player: beat the shit out of the guy and press charges. But the homosexual nature of the crime revealed a huge blind spot in sports where macho and homo just don’t mix. Fear enters the picture. Sexuality that is inexpressible, underground, and hidden if it raises its head out of the fox hole.
Real men beat each other at the line of scrimmage. On that topic please go read Kris Jenkins View of Life in the NFL Trenches, also out today. “You ever been in a car crash? Done bumper cars? You know when that hit catches you off guard and jolts you, and you’re like, what the hell? Football is like that. But 10 times worse. It’s hell.”
So real men don’t make out with each other or, a thousand times worse, fondle boys. It’s just beyond the scope of a man inside football to even comprehend. It has to be covered-up. And yet what is at stake here is a definition of manhood that we as a country can live with. One that has depth and compassion as well as strength. What PSU showed us, according to Mendelsohn, is that we are still a long way from any of that.
What lurks behind so many male athletes’ vociferous antipathy to homosexuality seems to be deep anxiety about masculinity, the very quality that aggressive team sports showcase. After all, a guy is never so much a guy as when he’s playing a violent game or hanging with his teammates afterward in the showers and locker rooms, “horsing around.” The familiar ferocious anti-gay swagger many athletes affect is likely meant to quash even the faintest suspicion that anything tender or erotic animates naked playfulness between men.
But true masculinity, like true sportsmanship, contains other virtues, too: forthrightness, honesty, fair play, courage in difficult situations, readiness to acknowledge error, concern for the weak as well as admiration for the strong. In their handling of Mr. Sandusky, the leaders of Penn State’s legendary football program failed to display a single one of these qualities. Maybe it’s time for a new kind of sports hero. What else are we supposed to conclude when grown men, trained to brave 300-pound linemen, run away from boys in trouble?
Amen to that, which isn’t to say that we don’t still have a very long way to go with dealing with sexual abuse of women. Just that at least inside sports we have some idea what the heck that is. When it comes to homo-erotic actions in the locker room, whether healthy or criminal, we can even begin to talk about it. And it’s about time we did.