The Jerry Sandusky Scandal at Penn State Is Driven by a 'Culture of Domination'

Roger ShulerContributor IIJanuary 3, 2012

BELLEFONTE, PA - DECEMBER 13:  Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky sits in a car while leaving the Centre County Courthouse, on December 13, 2011 in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Sandusky, who was charged with sexual abuse involving 10 boys he met through the Second Mile nonprofit organization, appeared briefly at today's preliminary hearing.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The child sex-abuse scandals that rocked the sports world near the end of 2011 are driven by a "culture of domination," according to one columnist.

I would argue that the sex-abuse cases, coming from the North American sports machine, were the No. 1 news story of 2011, going way beyond the realm of sports and raising disturbing questions about our society in general.

Consider the breadth of a story that evolved over just a couple of months time. It came to encompass Penn State footballSyracuse University basketballCanadian hockeyAAU basketball and even a famed sports journalist.

Of all the words written about the child sex-abuse scandals of 2011, perhaps the most profound come from Chicago-based journalist Robert Koehler. In a piece titled "Saluting Rapists," Koehler gets to the mindset at the heart of sex-abuse scandals.

First, Koehler dispenses with terms like "abuse" and "molestation" to describe these cases. He says they are cases of rape—and the perpetrators are rapists:

Sex scandals are a media staple, of course, but in recent weeks we’ve been rocked by a new wave of sex abuse scandals—rape scandals—the dark, disturbing power of which, as always, lies in the likelihood that there are a lot more revelations and accusations still to come, more authority figures’ reputations to be shattered, more honor-steeped traditions to be exposed as hollow.

But Koehler does not stop there. He also examines sexual abuse among adults, especially in the military. At the heart of it all, Koehler writes, is a special kind of human ugliness. Does former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky personify this desire to dominate? What about Bernie Fine at Syracuse?

When sex is hidden in the shadows—when it’s something you can’t talk about (but you can brag about)—it easily becomes one more tool of domination, wrapped in an unspeakable shame that preserves its secrecy. The crime of rape is the crime of predation, the crime of “I own you.” And it is an institutional failure first—on college campuses, in the U.S. military—as evinced by breaking news stories reporting not merely allegations of sexual molestation over a long period of time, but of their quiet cover-up by those in charge, granting de facto impunity to the victimizers. The pattern is always the same.

By fascinating coincidence, two recent developments highlighting the endemic problem of sexual abuse in the U.S. military are in the news just as the child-molestation scandal in college sports programs and other macho domains has begun to widen.

At both Penn State and The Citadel, the military college in South Carolina, the sex abuse allegations emanate from their summer camp programs for boys, reopening the ghastly concerns first forced upon the public a decade ago by the sex-abuse revelations that shook the Catholic Church. If such institutional paragons of traditional values can’t be trusted, are children safe anywhere?

Koehler asks this disturbing question: What kind of values really are at the core of America's sports programs, its military, its churches?

Maybe it’s time to look at the values themselves—beginning with those of our military culture, which is the model, and indeed the metaphor, for every other form of domination culture: The prime value is winning, achieving dominance over some sort of enemy or “other.” Around this core of dominance, we construct a fortress of honor, righteousness, cleanliness of mind and spirit. We revere the fortress, but in its dark interior, our natural impulses are ungoverned and often manifest themselves in perverse mockery of the values we salute.

Is something missing in our culture of sports? Koehler says the answer is yes—and it is unclear if the shocking nature of recent scandals will help bring change:

My belief: As long as such values as honesty, empathy and love are subservient to conquest and domination, both inside and outside the military, nothing will change.