THE BLOG

Paterno, Penn State and Patriarchy

11/11/2011 02:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

When you Google the origins of the surname Paterno, you learn it referred not only to the makers of rosaries and beads, but was also a status name to imply "father figure."

Sadly, it's a short leap from Paterno to patriarchy, strictly defined as a social organization marked by the supremacy of males and the father, and the subservience of women and children.

It was a toxic, patriarchal culture that drove the priest sex abuse scandals that continue to rock the Catholic Church. And the same toxic patriarchy that infuses college and professional football was at play in the Penn State scandal.

Patriarchal societies protect perpetrators and silence or minimize the suffering of their victims. At worst, they blame the victims for the assaults. At their root, some scholars argue, is misogyny, a deep-seated, often subconscious, hatred of and contempt for what Dan Brown so famously referred to as "the sacred feminine." The qualities we tend to think of as feminine- compassion, tenderness, intuition, an ability to empathize with others -- are consistently devalued in our society, even mocked. And never so much as in the world of sports.

Don't agree? Think I'm off-base? Here's the thing. I love my husband, my father, my brother and all my male friends. I think it's OK to like sports. And I do know that most men value the innocence of children and want to protect it. No, I'm talking about institutions and the culture at large, the values and norms we take for granted and rarely analyze and confront. I'm talking about what happens when women aren't in the room -- the locker room, or the board room, and certainly the room where little boys were allegedly raped. Visit this, and this, and this.

And the next time you watch a football game on TV, take a moment to evaluate the role of gender in the broadcast. Count how many times you hear one announcer mock another one as a "girly-man" or some similar gender-driven insult. Observe the way women are literally relegated to the sidelines in this world, either as sideline reporters -- never in the coveted broadcast booth -- or objectified as unpaid sexual playthings in the form of scantily clad cheerleaders.

Historically, misogyny and sexual abuse are intertwined, and this holds true whether the victims of abuse are girls or boys. Sex in patriarchal societies is an act of dominance.

And what could be more patriarchal than football? It's an obsession with dominance and brute force. In 1990, when Paterno lost a big game to Texas and said, "I'm going to go home and beat my wife," he thought he was being funny. But it was just him revealing himself as part of a sports culture with patriarchal norms.

When women are integrated into power structures, the institution is humanized in a different way. Collaboration, flexibility, is valued over strict hierarchical chain of command -- a very male dynamic. Of course, that's what imploded this scandal. A slavish obedience to the university's chain of command, rather than realizing the critical moral imperative to go beyond it.

Empathy for others -- a more feminine quality -- becomes part of the ethic when at least some women have some say in running the show. In case you haven't noticed, empathy is not football's strong suit. The idea is to kill the other guy, and when that's in your head 24 hours a day, I'm guessing it must be tough to pivot into stopping to think how the other guy -- or in this case -- BOY -- feels.

I mean really. Can you honestly believe for one moment that a FEMALE coach would not have called the cops if someone had told her little children were being allegedly raped in the showers she oversaw?

And yes, female sexual predators do exist, although they aren't as common as male abusers. Teachers or other women in positions of authority, who take advantage of young vulnerable male children and sexually molest them, have caused plenty of misery themselves. However, it's further indication that we live in a patriarchal culture that these women don't typically face the same condemnation that men do when their crimes are exposed. Too many of us assume that the lad was having a great time -- after all, he scored! He made a conquest of an older woman! Again, patriarchy at work.

When you remove women from the equation, and an institution is defined by patriarchal values, too often, the abuse of the powerless, the vulnerable, is the result. Since manly sports like football are a refuge for many men from the reality of women's liberation, this dynamic seems deeply rooted.

However, there are hopeful signs. The sight of men cheering loudly for the athletes of the 2011 Women's World Cup marked a sea change in sports. And the heads rolling at Penn State, while sparking outrage in some quarters, proved there are serious consequences to abusing and exploiting children. And just as important, turning a blind eye to that abuse.