The Washington Post

Would more women at the top at Penn State have stopped Sandusky sooner?

This is the statue of former Penn State University head football coach Joe Paterno that stands outside Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

Former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky leaves the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Pa. during his trial last month. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Yet as much as I’d like to see this theory widely tested — would women in control of powerful institutions be less likely to protect the brand at all costs? — I’m not convinced it’s anything but wishful thinking.

“The Penn State tragedy is a disaster rooted in sexism and man’s lack of sexual control,” argues Jason Whitlock in a much-discussed Fox Sports column. Women simply don’t understand such predatory sexual urges, he writes. Which is why “only a group of men could find Sandusky’s mental illness more sympathetic than the victims’ suffering,” he concludes.

Well, urges aside — oh and even now, I am fighting an intense desire to say more about that, Jason — not all of us are a cross between Mother Teresa and a Mama Grizzly. This is also a confused view of the challenge, which is surely less about sex than about self-preservation. And it’s a distraction, too, from what I see as the only true solution, which is the clear-eyed realization that cover-ups don’t work; they don’t resolve or even mitigate problems, but reliably compound them.

Still, much has been made of the fact that it was a woman, Vicky Triponey, who as Penn State’s vice president of student affairs challenged Paterno’s refusal to see that football players were held to the same disciplinary standards as other students.

Their lopsided struggle didn’t even play out in private, with Paterno openly mocking Triponey as “that lady in Old Main” who irony of ironies couldn’t possibly know how to handle young people since “she didn’t have kids.” She lost, of course, and left Penn State with her reputation temporarily in tatters.

Penn State university president Rodney Erickson speaks as Chairman of the Board of Trustees Karen B. Peetz listens at a news conference in Scranton, Penn. July 12, 2012. (Eric Thayer/Reuters)

Other women played less wholesome roles in the scandal, however. Karen B. Peetz, who became chairwoman of the Penn State board of trustees in 2010, was in the job and on the case when Paterno leveraged a bigger salary and better perks for himself and his family, even as the posse was closing in. That package won’t be revisited, either, as Peetz made clear after The New York Times broke the story last week: “Contracts are contracts,” she said. Good to know.

It was Joe Pa’s wife, Sue Paterno, who reportedly pressured Triponey to go easy on one of the players in trouble. And it was Sandusky’s wife, Dottie Sandusky, who testified that she never heard or saw a thing while her husband’s victims were being assaulted — and screaming for help, one of them said — in her basement while she was home.

Dottie Sandusky, wife of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Penn., where he was found guilty on 45 counts of sex abuse charges involving 10 boys over a 15-year period. (Pat Little/Reuters)

And I can’t say I was surprised. In reporting on the way my own alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, has handled reports of sexual assaults, I never detected any gender divide in the wagon-circling of administrators and trustees, which was definitely a coed event.

Then there was the football scandal at Colorado University a few years back. When players there were accused, and not for the first time, of setting recruits up to rape drunk women, the response of the school’s female president, Elizabeth Hoffman, was to support the athletic director and football coach in denying there was a problem.

Heads eventually rolled, and the university settled a civil lawsuit brought by some of the women — but not before Hoffman testified in defense of the slur many women most abhor. Hey, she said in a deposition, Chaucer used it as a term of endearment.

“Because she is a medieval scholar,” a university spokeswoman dutifully clarified, “she is also aware of the long history of the word.”

In the even longer history of those in power protecting it at the expense of people, women have less practice, but show more promise than I wish were the case.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.



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