The Implications of Sexual Assault in Society

“WE ARE” – The chant that echoes through “Happy Valley”, a community that encompasses Pennsylvania State University. Given its size and success since 1855, it is a university with such patriotism that some may even deem it a “cult”. While there are several features to life in State College, PA, none quite resonate like the university’s football team, a team highly associated with it’s head coach from 1966 to 2011. The reputation of the football team and Joe Paterno easily promoted positivity in the Pennsylvania town until the allegations of Jerry Sandusky assaulting young boys made the news. Throughout “Happy Valley: The Story Behind the Penn State Scandal”, the director presented the controversy in such a way to engage the audience and allow them to reflect on the scandal, creating an ambiguous narrative in order for the viewers to do more that just evaluate the facts, but look at the implications of sexual assault. Through the analysis of this artifact, it is shown that the evidence presented on the scandal surrounding Jerry Sandusky and the oversight of sexual assault had lasting consequences for Joe Paterno, the victims of the assault, and the entire Penn State community, highlighting the negative impact in which undermining sexual violence due to cultural ideologies and opinions has on civic life.

In the wake of the news of the Penn State scandal, Joe Paterno was immediately brought into the issue, and his character and reputation was refuted based on the crime committed by someone else. When a graduate assistant reported to Paterno that he saw Jerry Sandusky fondling a young boy in a shower, Paterno referred matters to his immediate boss, the athletic director, but no PSU official took allegations to the police. From the investigation of the allegations surrounding Sandusky, Joe Paterno’s role was called into question as to whether or not he knew the crimes were being committed. While many people recognized Paterno’s contribution to society and the Penn State community, the community evaluated his moral obligation in the issue when he was not the actual person who committed the crime. In the documentary, Paterno’s biographer said that in hindsight, Joe wished he could have done more at the time, a lesson to all people who suspect someone is being sexually assaulted.

While Joe Paterno was not legally at fault and wished he could have prevented the harm of countless children, his life and legacy were scrutinized because sexual assault went unnoticed and people looked to blame a single individual rather than reflect on their personal ideologies.  In an interview with Scott Paterno in the film, he said he told his father that the way it appeared to others was that the assistant coach saw a child being raped, told Paterno about it, and he did nothing more than “tell these guys up the chain”. Additionally, in a clip in the movie, Scott is shown asking the crowds surrounding the Paterno home to take a moment to say a prayer for the victims because that is the real tragedy. Regardless of whether his father coached another game, he recognized the real tragedy that had occurred and saw the important in finding support for the victims.

Because Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky, and the football team served as a symbol for the community, when this scandal brought down Sandusky, the other people associated with him were also destroyed, even though they were not responsible for the crime. The community knew Paterno as someone who treated football as more than a game, but as way to develop players holistically. Joe Paterno was a rhetorical figure in the community, encouraging people to become educated role models and leaders. In the film, he is shown saying, “Football, if it’s just a question of winning is a silly game. I think it’s fine to use the winning to develop the kid into being something more than maybe he thinks he can be.” More than just his football career, he had a high rate of graduation on the football team and also turned down an offer to coach for the New England Patriots. Some people tried to disassociate Joe Paterno from Sandusky, and that by putting Jerry Sandusky in jail, Joe Paterno and the football program could remain in tact. In an interview with a film professor in the documentary, he compares the situation to trying to remove a bad apple from a barrel so that the rest of the barrel may be saved. Moreover, the community attempted to dissociate Joe’s good name from Sandusky’s, but this ongoing sexual assault had too great of an effect on individuals connected to the perpetrator.

While Joe Paterno’s legacy remains questionable for some, the young boys who became victims of sexual assault are not given enough significance. In the testimony of Matt Sandusky, the adopted son of Jerry Sandusky, his tough upbringing led him into the Sandusky home. Matt’s childhood home before he was adopted is shown in the movie, and he explains the harsh conditions he endured, forcing the audience to sympathize with the appeal Matt found in Jerry Sandusky. Matt further goes to say that he never wanted to “betray” Sandusky. In coming forward, Matt had nothing to gain and everything to lose as is the case for most victims of sexual assault. Matt came forward and was willing to testify that he was sexually abused by Sandusky. He eventually lost ties with the Sandusky family in order to make his position known. Matt is a representative for many victims who feared speaking up given the position and power of the perpetrators. Matt says in the film that Paterno and Sandusky could be seen in a very far off analogy to God and his son, Jesus. Society viewed them as men who could do no wrong, and when allegations of sexual assault were made, Sandusky was given every benefit of the doubt. People refused to believe these issues were happening right under their nose.  

In the destruction of Paterno’s legacy and the silence of victims afraid to come forward, the entire Penn State community faced the devastation of the consequences of sexual assault. The community religiously supported the program that gave it its greatest amount of success in terms of the economy, spirit, and identity of the community found in Joe Paterno and the beliefs he represented as the “beacon of integrity”. In the fall of his image and the hardship that affected Sandusky’s victims, the community lost it’s identity. There were riots in the streets of downtown State College following news that Joe was fired, emphasizing the emotional aftermath in which the loss of this iconic figure in the community had on the people. When Paterno was stripped of his association to Penn State, the emotional reaction indicated the way in which the passion for football and this communal figure dominated their emotions. Support for the victims was not expressed enough in the media and the community. The reputation of the individuals surrounding the allegations and their positions in society were given more focus than the actual crime itself. Overlooking sexual assault can easily happen if communities choose to focus on restoration of images over grievance and suffering of the victims of sexual abuse.

In examining the reasons as to why sexual abuse was overlooked at Penn State, the civic life at the university had their focus on the spectacle that dominated the culture so much that it did not see the problems that laid within the community. The community thrived and people there helped exemplify the values Paterno believed. People don’t immediately look to accuse others of sexual assault, but they can be blinded if they do not see signs that are in front of them. Ideologically, this rhetoric artifact effectively presents to the the audience that for decades, sexual abuse was overlooked. However, the rhetorical devices are used in order for the audience to uncover as to why this happened and who can be held responsible. For some, the argument that the justice system has convicted Jerry Sandusky is enough to return to their usual way of life. However, in the acceptability of this argument, a moral and ethical stance shows that the culture plays a role in preventing these actions in the future. The documentary does not present the rhetorical argument that football is the problem. The film even argues that the role in which football played in this event was an externality of this situation because this football culture exists everywhere in America. The fact that this scandal happened at Penn State, who does have a celebrated football reputation, should not influence the severity in which this violence is viewed. These issues occur everywhere, however, they can be encouraged if college football is prioritized over the moral obligations of human beings.

Prioritizing the success of a community over individuals can lead to significantly illogical arguments that go against the appeal of human nature. In the film, an interview with a student who attended the university at the time of the scandal, expressed his extreme views on the Penn State scandal. The student is shown sitting in his bed with Penn State logoed sheets, comforter, and Joe Paterno pictures all over his wall. He outlines his feelings about the game following the firing of Paterno, saying, “Taylor Martinez, Nebraska’s quarterback, was walking by, and I said ‘Martinez, the only way you’re leaving here is in a hearse because we’re going to destroy you!’ and then this kid behind me says ‘It’s not about that today!’ And I’m like, ‘It’s not about that today? I don’t care what happened. This is Penn State football and it’s always about that.’ ” In featuring this student, he appeals to the emotional numbness in which people can possess when the ideologies of a culture dominant logical thinking about civic life and sympathy towards those deeply affected by it.

Even though the mob mentality and the “civic religion” of football may have played some role in the emotional reaction to this traumatic event, the blame can not only be cast upon the actual perpetrator or individuals in the community, but rather, each person should examine what steps to take in order to prevent sexual assault from happening. In one of the opening lines of the film, an illogical argument is made that, “This is not a Penn State issue or a Joe Paterno issue. It’s a Jerry Sandusky issue.” While justice is given to the person who actually committed the crime, the entire community was affected by the issue, and because the effect is felt by civic life, the community is called to prevent sexual assault in the future. “Happy Valley: The Story Behind the Penn State Scandal” calls into question a self evaluation of each individual viewer, those directly tied and those distant from these events. The “WE ARE” that serves as a symbol in the community can misidentify society’s ideologies if it serves as a unity of the dominating ideals of figureheads and norms rather than the actual people. However, if this call can unite people to do more than just show support, but rather, take a stance, then “WE ARE”…people who can help solve the problem of sexual assault.

Even though the documentary calls into question the reason why the abuse was ignored, it doesn’t offer a solution for it. In evaluation of the facts, ambiguity still remains as to whether or not Joe Paterno knew of Sandusky’s accounts of sexual assault, but that is not the priority of this rhetorical situation. The rhetoric of this film is intended to appeal to an insider who “bleeds blue and white” and an outsider who can only judge what they have seen. However, given that it presents the differing views and offers lack of uncertainty allows the conversation to continue. Idolizing a person or a culture can encourage these issues to remain and have further consequences on an individual or a community. The lawyer for many of the victims makes a claim in the film that the further he went from “Happy Valley” the more empathetic people become to the victims, showing that if people are blinded by the culture, spectacles, and civic ideologies, this can cause people to overlook the consequences of sexual assault and the implications on the lives of not only the victims, but on many people connected the violence.


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