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Dr. Yvonne K. Fulbright Headshot

Countering the Criticism of Paterno

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The legendary football coach Joe Paterno was laid to rest this past week, with his passing reigniting the recent debate over whether he could or should have done more to protect young boys from sexual abuse. Despite the fact that it's his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, facing over 50 counts of child sexual abuse, the public's venomous wrath has focused on Paterno. The few comments he made about the situation, before succumbing to lung cancer January 22, have been ridiculed as seeming incredulous.

As a sexuality educator, I have not been surprised by Paterno's explanations about his reactions to Sandusky's alleged activities and how he fulfilled his legal obligations of reporting what he learned to his superiors. Like it or not, his statements are reflective of how most individuals, including his critics, would respond.

"He didn't want to get specific."

In an interview with the Washington Post, Paterno explained how assistant coach, Mike McQueary, had come to his home one Saturday evening in 2002 to inform him that he'd seen what looked like inappropriate touching or fondling between Sandusky and a young boy in the shower at Penn State's Lasch Football Building. Many have criticized Paterno and McQueary for not discussing the details of what McQueary saw.

Reality check: How easy would it be for you to talk about sex with your superior or employee, especially when there's a 50-year age difference and power dynamic involved? Despite rampant popular press discussions about sex, it's still hard for individuals of all ages to talk about sex. Whether it's two lovers, a parent and child, teacher and students... most people do not have the comfortability and language to effectively communicate about sexuality, especially when it involves a matter causing anxiety and distress, and accusations against people who you know and respect.

So it should come as no shocker that these grown men did not get into the nitty-gritty of what took place, especially since Paterno described McQueary as having been upset. Like it or not, their lack of discourse is the norm. Often starved of sexuality education, let alone any forum in which to learn about sex communication, most people don't have the lingo, confidence, or ability to have sex conversations. The end results: miscommunication and a failure to adequately address problems.

"To be frank with you I didn't know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. "

It has only been recently that people, namely younger generations who are fortunate enough to get a taste of sexual assault prevention education, have become aware that males can be raped. Consider that it is only in the last month that the FBI changed its definition of rape, announcing that it will include the rapes of men and statutory rape in its official statistics (for its annual Uniform Crime Reports). Until now, it only counted the "carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will."

Given the generation that Paterno is from, it's understandable that any rape awareness he might've been exposed to only focused on women. Regardless of age, both males and females have a hard time grasping how a male can be raped since he doesn't have a vagina. Add to this the fact that a successful child sexual predator is characterized as clever, secretive, charming, pleasant, engaging, skilled at reassuring that nothing is wrong, an expert at giving a convincing facade... and many end up getting duped on who can do what to whom.

"I didn't know exactly how to handle it and I was afraid to do something that might jeopardize what the university procedure was. So I backed away and turned it over to some other people, people I thought would have a little more expertise than I did. It didn't work out that way."

Ever hear of the PLISSIT model? Used by therapists and health care practitioners to assess and manage clients' sexuality, this assessment is grounded in professionals making referrals when they're out of their league in handling a situation. Failure to refer, let alone try to address a matter where one has no training, background, or expertise, would be considered unethical.

So why is Paterno being faulted for the fact that he didn't follow-up more aggressively with his superiors or the police about Sandusky's alleged activities? Like so many other professionals in so many other fields, he did the right thing, trusting that his superiors would be better able to handle the situation than he could. It's not his fault that they didn't.

"So I sat around. It was a Saturday. Waited till Sunday because I wanted to make sure I knew what I was doing. And then I called my superiors... I had never had to deal with something like that. And I didn't feel adequate."

Many have thrown harsh criticism at Paterno for not acting right away. While a heroic, Superman response would've been ideal, it's just that -- a fantasy. And maybe it should stay so given that levying sexual abuse charges against somebody is a huge deal. Any misstep could end up ruining innocent lives if the accused isn't guilty.

Between processing the shock of the situation, the wave of emotions unleashed, and a plan of action, it was right of Paterno to "sleep on it." Isn't it Proverbs 19:2 that reads: "Enthusiasm without knowledge is no good; Haste makes mistakes"?

"In hindsight, I wish that I had done more."

This statement doesn't incriminate Paterno any more than it should anyone else. When it comes to sexual assault of any kind against anybody, almost everybody could say the same. Everyone should be saying they could've done more to prevent sexual abuse.

"I don't want to walk away from this thing bitter. I want to be helpful."

Despite the fact that Paterno was terminated via phone after over 60 years of service at Penn State, he and his wife, Sue, continued their generous philanthropy, donating another $100,000 to the school in December. In spite of people brutally questioning a life he'd defined with honor, academics, and sportsmanship, he chose to be positive. How many people could say that?

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