SPEAKING OUT: Penn State University students (from left) Evan Ponter, Alicia Archangel, and Ryan Kristobak protest outside of Penn State's administrative building in State College, Pennsylvania., on Nov. 8. Football coach Joe Paterno was fired the next day. (Photo: Newscom)
It is the kind of scandal that just doesn’t belong in the sports pages — the athletic stadium is supposed to be a place for retreat and hope. As in October 2001, when in the thick of post-9/11 perplexity the New York Yankees nourished the nation in a collective daydream. Or in February 2010, when the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, just four years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated their city. Save the conspiracy theories, these and other moments of sports history — think, for example, of Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, and Arthur Ashe — prove that sports often transcend the realm of simple athletics to signify something greater. These moments provide humanity with an opportunity to recess (in the truest sense) and affirm the goodness, or at least the possibility of goodness, in a broken world.
In other moments, sports reveal more broken images of humanity. As in October 1988, when holier-than-thou Notre Dame played then-troubled Miami University, in a game marketed by Notre Dame students as “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Yuck. Or worse: when the stability of a college football program is justifiable reason to cover up the sexual abuse of multiple children over multiple years.
Let’s be clear: There is nothing GOOD about the Penn State story. As an advocate for child rights, I cringe at every new detail. But whether any good comes out of this story depends on how much we pay attention. Even the worst story has a few good lessons. I’ll tell you what we won’t learn.
We won’t learn what students actually learn at Penn State. Not from the thousands of kids who rioted and destroyed their own property in the name of a coach who was complicit in the abuse of multiple children. I’m worried about the lapse in critical thinking that allows college students to be so reckless. That’s formidable ignorance.
DEFENDING JOE PA: Penn State students showed their support for their football team's former coach, Joe Paterno, prior to the school's Nov. 12 game against Nebraska. Paterno was fired earlier that week. (Photo by Matthew O'Haren/Newscom)
We won’t learn about the college football program those students love so dearly. As you may already know, the NCAA is already involved in a vapid hypocrisy around the (unfair?) treatment of college athletes. It goes like this: colleges make a LOT of money, student athletes make none, and can face harsh violations if they even accept a free lunch. I know college life — I’m taking all free lunches.
Penn State is yet another cog in a wheel that needs destroying. They protected a known sexual predator (yes, they knew; we’ll get to that), and for obvious reasons. Think now: Penn State’s football program brings in $50 million a season — on a bad year. That income stream depends upon the stability of TV contracts and bowl appearances. Gotta have a good team for that. Gotta have good players for that. Gotta win recruits for that.
What do you think would happen if a recruit found out that the defensive coordinator of the football team was a child molester? A lot of greasy palms get dry very fast. Can’t happen. So when a family comes forward — in 1998, mind you — with allegations of abuse against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State allows him to retire, quietly and comfortably, with emeritus status. District attorney decides not to pursue charges, police drop case, Sandusky keeps an office at Penn State. In 2010, Jerry leaves the charity he founded — The Second Mile — citing “personal matters” he needs to handle. Here’s what’s personal: another child came forward, told the charity, and they flipped. The only reason they didn’t call CNN immediately? Penn State. It’s not that they want to protect Jerry Sandusky, but they have to protect Penn State football.
In doing this, the university has placed a value on children’s safety — a cardinal sin that occurs daily outside of sports — and Penn State football just made my “Not a Fan” list (your list might be named something different). The bitter irony in all this protecting and shadowing is Penn State didn’t even win a National Championship from 1998-2010! They can’t even do wrong right.
We can’t learn much from Jerry Sandusky, except for how to pass “Go” many times before heading to Jail (a higher authority will deal with our frustration — check Matthew 18). You don’t wanna be Jerry Sandusky.
Neither are the innocent children in the scope of our learning. All they have are my prayers for a fulfilling life to overcome the dark days ahead.
That leaves Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach and resident idol of State College, Pennsylvania (“icon” is too soft a word). He is at the center of all this. Remember those riotous college students? The college football cover-up? The continuous flow of children that Sandusky had access to because nobody wanted to spoil the pot? Keep pulling that string … Joe Paterno is holding the other end.
He’ll have you to think he’s a victim — gotta love those folksy, front-lawn press conferences — but let’s be clear: the ONLY victims are the young boys (now men) who must live in shame of being exploited in their vulnerability. Everyone else here is a casualty of the cowardice of Joe Paterno. Let me explain.
ABSOLUTE POWER: Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Before his firing on Nov. 9, Paterno had been a coach at Penn State since 1950. It was revealed today that he's battling lung cancer. (Photo by Scott Audette/Newscom)
When families came forward in 1998, the president and board of Penn State turned to “Joe Pa,” and he took no decisive action. When then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary found Sandusky in the showers performing sexual acts with a 10-year-old boy in 2002, the first person at the university he told was Paterno.
The jury is still out on why McQueary didn’t go directly to the police. Did he not know that sexual abuse is a criminal act? More than that: How powerful are you that if someone is being raped, people call YOU before the police? Try to grasp that.
Nevertheless, Paterno had a chance to take immediate action in the 2002 incident but didn’t. Instead, he waited a full day before reporting the information to Penn State’s athletic director, and even then nothing was reported to the police. The administrators who were technically Paterno’s superiors worked to cover up the mess that was brewing, and both have been arrested and charged as a result. But even then, Paterno could have stepped in and made sure Sandusky’s alleged crimes were reported to the authorities. But that didn’t happen.
It’s easy to see now that Penn State’s reputation, and the preservation of its precious football program, were the chief concerns of these adult individuals who could’ve put an immediate stop to Sandusky’s interaction with children.
The teachable moment is yes, absolute power corrupts (and Joe Pa’s power was pretty absolute), but also that genuine leadership means the power and permission to change or destroy lives. If you have enough authority to save a life, you can probably ruin one as well.
Those are the conversations I hope students at Penn State and elsewhere will begin having in the aftermath of this tragedy. For America has an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit — we are training leaders and affirming the use of power and influence to make this world better. But there is such a thing as integrity and justice. And for a few years, the most powerful man in the state of Pennsylvania lost sight of that. Look what happened.
When Joyce Villeneuve was just a young girl, she witnessed horrific violence between the Ugandan government and the civilian resistance. On August 4, 1972, Idi Amin, the President of Uganda, ordered Indians to leave the country. Joyce and her family fled for their lives and landed in Seychelles.
Their new life was vastly different from their old life. They went from living a comfortable life in Uganda to living in poverty as refugees. Shortly after their escape, Joyce’s mother developed a dependency on alcohol, which led to physical abuse. Meanwhile, Joyce’s father struggled to take care of his family and work them out of the poverty they suffered.
Joyce’s mother continued to spiral downward despite her father’s attempts to provide care for her. The turning point came when her mother’s rage threatened Joyce’s life. Shortly after, she began to slowly seek help and open up about her depression and repressed anger of when she was abused as a child.
The unresolved drama surrounding Bishop Eddie Long and his alleged misconduct with four young men in his congregation raises serious questions about clergy abuse and matters of sexuality in the Black church. But are we ready to be honest? Three scholars respond.
One of the top religion stories of 2010 was the controversy involving Bishop Eddie Long, in which four young men filed civil suits against the Atlanta megachurch pastor accusing him of sexual misconduct and manipulation. When the story broke last September, it generated a variety of responses, but two recurring themes were the issue of clergy sexual abuse and the unofficial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy toward homosexuality within the African American church, which was heightened by Long’s outspoken preaching against same-sex relationships.
As UrbanFaith columnist Wil LaVeist remarked last year, Bishop Long is innocent until proven otherwise, and it is not UrbanFaith’s intention to pass judgment one way or the other. The case is scheduled to move into mediation next month. In the meantime, however, we asked three leading Christian scholars to share their perspectives on the larger themes that this scandal has raised for the Christian community, and especially the Black church. Their remarks reflect their own opinions and do not necessarily represent the views of UrbanFaith.
CHERYL J. SANDERS: We Must Confront Clergy Abuse
Because I have not heard of any clear statement from Bishop Eddie Long admitting or denying that he committed the sexual acts alleged by his four young accusers, I can assert neither his guilt nor innocence with any degree of certainty. However, I am convinced that religious leaders and congregations can learn some lessons from the crisis that has arisen as a result of the highly publicized charges against him.
The first lesson is to be aware that clergy sexual abuse can occur in any congregation. Awareness empowers us to be proactive about creating and maintaining safe sacred spaces for children and adults to worship and grow spiritually. It includes offering age-appropriate instruction to our children and teens about how to identify and report inappropriate sexual acts.
Second is the importance of setting boundaries. We cannot assume that everyone who participates in a faith community is automatically equipped and motivated to maintain proper boundaries. How many of our congregations have developed and published guidelines and policies to safeguard interactions between adults and children during church activities and trips? When it comes to sexual harassment and misconduct, it is essential to show everyone where “the line” is before anyone crosses the line.
The third lesson is that our congregations must exercise vigilant stewardship of the physical well-being, mental health, and spiritual potential of our young people. This requires a commitment to do everything in our power to prevent sexual molestation. If it does occur, we have an inescapable obligation to administer discipline to the offender and offer healing to the victim. The issue here is not homosexuality per se, and this scandal brings neither “homophobia” nor hypocrisy to an end in the black churches. Can we develop viable structures of accountability to check those pastors, teachers, counselors and mentors who would gratify their own sexual desires by preying upon the vulnerable young people entrusted to their care? If not, then we would do better by our children to shut our churches down rather than to support and defend their abusers in complicity with crimes against God and humanity.
Dr. Cheryl J. Sanders is Professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University and the senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C.
HAROLD DEAN TRULEAR: Sex in Its Proper Context
Sexual immorality is dirty.
I offer this as a social scientist who, with Margaret Mead, argues that “dirt” is “matter out of place.” Our yards and parks consist of dirt, but they are not “dirty.” Rather the soil is in place, therefore we pronounce them clean. But if a discarded newspaper covers the soil, the area is “dirty,” not because of dirt, but because of the presence of the paper strewn about. Sex is not dirty, but sex away from its proper context is.
Sexual immorality is sinful.
Much of our revulsion to practices like adultery and homosexuality, and hence the silence of the Black church, reflects our sense of dirt, not sin. The emotional energy exerted toward reviling the “dirty” points to a desire to avoid the “out of place.” Sexual sin is dirty because it is sex out of place, whether fornication or adultery. But the incongruity is even more pronounced when two persons of the same gender engage in sexual activity, because one of the two is “out of place.” Hence, as with all repulsive reactions, we either rail against the dirt or turn our heads.
Sexuality is fragmentary.
One’s sexual behavior never fully defines one’s personhood, therefore to call someone a “homosexual” can only identify a portion of who they are. And, likewise, male heterosexuality can never fully define someone as a “real man.” True manhood and womanhood flow from the Imago Dei, and not from sexual practice. Persons can never be fully defined by, and personhood can never be fully achieved by, any type of sexual behavior.
Jesus transforms dirt to medicine — redeeming that which is out of place.
Jesus sets us free from sin — the sin which separates us from God.
Jesus makes people whole — sending His Spirit into every aspect of an individual life.
Jesus does not throw away or suffer revulsion from dirt; He transforms it. Jesus does not couch sin in terms of cognitive development; He names it and heals it. Jesus does not lift sexuality and sexual behavior to definitive status; He, as part of the Trinity at creation, blessed humanity with it to express union in a manner consistent with His union with the church.
Harold Dean Trulear, Ph.D., is an ordained American Baptist minister and an Associate Professor of Applied Theology at the Howard University School of Divinity.
RANDAL JELKS: The Black Church Needs to Be Honest About Sexuality
Black Christians must fess up and acknowledge that human beings are sexual. Sexual intercourse is a reality. Intercourse is a biological mechanism for procreation and a
pleasurable desire. Like all things, sex can become deviant. By deviant I do not mean same-sex relations, I mean sex can be used to satisfy needs for power, control, and status. By not having frank discussions and theological reflection with Black congregants, biological urges and sexual desires take on a greater place in the imagination of Black Christians than is healthy.
Here’s the problem. Historically, sex was used against Black people. Let’s just think about it for a moment. Slave owners could sexually abuse and rape a slave woman without recourse to the law. The justification for this use of power was the notion that slave women had uncontrollable libidos, proverbial “hot mommas.” After the Civil War, Black people sought to legalize their relationships through marriage, a civil benefit that slavery did not permit. These new marriages attempted to give Black women legal protections that they did not have against powerful and abusive men. Following the war, sex was used in post-emancipation America to justify lynching. A chief justification for lynching was the rapacious nature of Black men, even though a question of property ownership underlined most lynching. Sex and sexuality justified abuse of both black women and men. As a result, many Black men and women tried to suppress their sexuality. They hid their sexual behaviors behind middle-class mores, lest there be another justification to subjugate Black lives.
This attitude should also be placed in another historical context of evangelical Christianity. The evangelicalism that Black Americans adopted and transformed served to give a conflicting outlook about sex, sexuality, and sexual expression. This theology, while promoting fidelity, also promoted a level of prudery about sex that most rural people never had. Attitudes about sex as Black people became urban were supposed to be restrained and only acceptable among married couples. Sexual desire was chastened by calls for “purity,” especially among young women, but purity did stop people from cavorting. The rates of sexually transmitted diseases were terribly high in Black communities long before the advent of the civil rights movement. The evangelicalism that Black people used as a tool of middle-class respectability could not hide the fact that churchgoing people had desires and were acting upon them then as they do today.
Sex or sexuality is not mechanically or psychologically pure. We know this from psychology, anthropology, and biology. Therefore, it seems incumbent on Black Christians to discuss sexuality that happens inside and outside churches in a more thoughtful theological way.
The angry preachments that condemn same-sex relationships are the same ones that are completely silent about the disastrous rates of HIV/AIDS killing Black communities today. This is quite ironic, because the mythic Black church — the liberating Black church — was suppose to be a community where all Black people could find loving freedom and equality as children of God.
Randal Jelks, Ph.D., M.Div., is an Associate Professor of American Studies with a joint appointment in African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He is also an ordained clergy person in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and a founder and co-editor of the blog TheBlackBottom.com.
Mo’Nique’s Oscar-winning performance in Precious came from a dark place in her family history. Say what you will about the actress and the movie, her Academy Award victory caps the unlikely rise of a black woman who turned personal tragedy into professional triumph.
Well, Mo’Nique did it.
The movie, Precious, for which she won the Academy Award for supporting actress, may have made us uncomfortable, but doggonit, Mo’Nique did it.
The sadistic way in which she’d make Precious, played by fellow Oscar nominee Gabourey Sidibe, wait on her like a slave and tell her that she wouldn’t amount anything. The pain and rage in her bloodshot eyes as her chapped lips sipped a cigarette bud revealing yellowed teeth. Mo’Nique, who broke through showbiz as a foul-mouth standup comedian, was absolutely believable as a dramatic actor.
And I’m sure she believed the Oscar would come.
By now you know Precious, based on the novel Push, is about an illiterate teen mom who triumphs after having been abused by just about everyone. She’s ridiculed at school and in her neighborhood. Family life is even worse. Her young child and newborn are from her father, who raped her. Her mother is arguably the most abusive and least sympathetic character in the movie. This is the role Mo’Nique worked into an award-winning performance.
The movie caused a stir, even anger, because it, yet again, put on display a highly dysfunctional black family. Even C. Jeffrey Wright, CEO of UrbanFaith’s parent company, chimed in about what many viewed as the movie’s lopsided portrayal of African American life. During the Oscar Night edition of The Barbara Walters Special, which aired before the 82nd Academy Awards, Mo’Nique addressed this. Abuse is “colorless” and that the actors just happened to be black, she said.
True, abuse and other dysfunctions exist in families of all ethnicities and races, but black dysfunction is too common in movies and throughout the media. This gives the impression that dysfunction is the only state of the black family. I realize family hell sells better at the box office, so I’d settle for more positive black characters in these same movies. Write in a black doctor who has it together, or an honest black business owner.
Truthfully, there are few families that are not dysfunctional and this is what many of us spend our careers — our lives — trying to overcome.
Mo’Nique’s Oscar winning-performance came from a dark place within her family. She was abused as a child. During the Walters interview, Mo’Nique discussed the sexual abuse she endured at the hands of an older brother beginning around age 7. Fear kept her from telling their parents until about age 15. Her brother went on to abuse someone else, and served prison time.
Mo’Nique modeled her Precious character after him. She told Walters that the last time they spoke and were together was as adults while she was in the hospital after birthing twins. Visiting, her brother picked up and held one of the babies in his arms. Bad move. I can only imagine the rage the welled inside Mo’Nique. She wasn’t specific about the encounter, but must’ve torn into him. With therapy, and the help of her husband, Mo’Nique released the burden, she said.
Faith is about believing deeply in what you can’t see despite the reasons to doubt that are before you. You can’t please God without it. As Mo’Nique’s name was announced as the winner, she paused and then stood and composed herself before heading to the stage. In her acceptance speech, she invoked the late Hattie McDaniel, the first black woman to win an Oscar back in 1940, and alluded to the politics that typically go along with being nominated for an Academy Award — politics that Mo’Nique boldly refused to partake in. It was at once clear that this Oscar victory — and her involvement in Precious — was much bigger than just playing a role in a movie. As I watched, I thought about all those rough times she must’ve endured, and perhaps, like Precious, how she might’ve wanted to give up. How Mo’Nique must’ve willed herself to focus not on the immediate trials in her personal life and career, but on the future rewards she envisioned.
You may not like her opinions or lifestyle choices, but Mo’Nique did it. She kept the faith.
“To every last person that celebrates a victory of being abused, and you can stand baby, congratulations,” she said backstage to the thank you cam. “…To the whole world I simply say I thank you and let’s start loving again, unconditionally.”
Now that’s a storyline we ought to be comfortable with.