The outing of former Penn State football guru Jerry Sandusky reminds me of men who made sexual advances on me as a young boy. But they only scared me, because I was on to them fast and beat a hasty retreat. I was never as vulnerable as the typical “disadvantaged” target of men like Sandusky. I hesitate to call him “monster” or “predator” because such words dehumanize, and what we need now is to recognize Sandusky’s humanity: he is a man too much like other bullies and connivers (mostly “straight,” by the way) all of us encounter in our communities. But he is “sick,” if you like; he needs help, and his life in incarceration, where he seems to be headed, will be a nightmare.
With all the negative labeling being heaped on Sandusky, I have yet to hear that Jerry is “queer.” But that is how I thought of every man who tried to molest me as a boy. And I believe that a good reason for Jerry’s immunity from gay slurs, which are unacceptable in any case, has to do with the culture he comes from, which is not gay culture, but football and sports culture, which breeds the notion that its ablest performers are immune from engaging in abnormal or illegal behavior. For Jerry to be labeled “a queer” would be to taint him with the ultimate male taboo—a “faggot” in the locker room.
Statistics suggest that every major sports league, with hundreds of players on its rosters, must have athletes who are homosexual. There are probably Jerry Sanduskys who have played for or coached at Ohio State or USC, the Chicago Bears or Philadelphia Sixers, the Montreal Canadians or the New York Yankees. Back in the ’70s a pro running back named Dave Kopay, an All-American at the University of Washington, wrote a book about being gay in a game in which the taboo against homosexual behavior was ironclad. And while he named only a Redskins teammate with whom he’d had an affair, Kopay wrote that he knew of other gay men in other teams’ locker rooms. Yes, Dave’s sport was football, and 1964-65 Jerry Sandusky was playing it and then, by 1969, coaching it at Penn State.
Imagine the stress on Dave and Jerry and other gay men among straight teammates in a culture that reviles homosexuals, and then imagine Jerry’s lust for boys’ bodies. And then imagine St. Joseph Paterno’s turning a blind eye on Jerry’s horrific abuse of local boys as he exploited his insider status at Penn State and his access to its football facilities, because Jerry’s skills as defensive coordinator had helped St. Joe win two national championships back in the ’80s. This is the stuff of Shakespearean tragedy, especially at the denouement, which we as a nation are witnessing: the mighty Joe and Jerry brought low through their own hubris.
Joe Paterno’s greatest sin might have been his failure to get his friend Jerry help the first time—or the second or third—before his inevitable self-destruction brought down the temple in Happy Valley. And our greatest denial now would be to consider Jerry’s case an aberration and not a result of our exaggerated glorification of sports “programs,” from Little League to the majors, which carries with it a double standard for judging the most successful athletes and coaches and thus allowing the Jerry Sanduskys to commit crime after crime against helpless boys.
The irony is that Penn State, a respectable academic institution, depended so much for its reputation on its football team and the success of St. Joe. In his seventies, when asked to resign, he told the university president to take a hike, that only he, Joe Paterno, would decide when he’d step down. And most Penn Staters sided with the coach. That’s why some loyalists still think Joe got a raw deal when he was fired by the board of trustees. But think of all the other areas of life besides education where our values are also topsy-turvy, and the inmates run the asylum. What has happened in State College, PA, is no aberration: Penn State and Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno are the pure products of America.