Date of Thesis

Spring 2018


In the wake of the sexual abuse of young boys being revealed to the public in November 2011, the Penn State community was launched into the forefront of public attention. Loyal Penn Staters were obviously shaken by the news, reacting in a manner consistent with trauma or crisis response. Select subgroups of those affiliated with Penn State, including fans, students, the Paterno family, and local retail business owners, employed many defense mechanisms in responding to the scandal. The defense mechanisms employed by Penn Staters included, but were not limited to, simple denial, appeals to the inherent morality of Penn State (and its football program), self-victimization, focus on icons, and the elimination of Sandusky’s true victims from public consciousness. Further, hegemonic institutional ideology played a distinct role in conditioning the behavior of these “insider collectives” in the wake of the scandal. The need for the PSU community to protect normalized conceptions of acceptable masculinity in a football setting, as well as the financial well-being of the community (capitalist interests), played a significant role in motivating the inability to acknowledge the true victims of the scandal: the boys. The group dynamics that were clearly at play in Happy Valley involved a subconscious public rejection of the psychological splitting required to authentically and effectively interrogate these group dynamics and their silencing effect. Thus, identification with Penn State University and its football program played an integral role in determining crisis response. xi In contrast to these Penn State insider subgroups, outside observers of the scandal reacted much differently to Sandusky’s transgressions and the subsequent cover-up by Penn State coaches and administrators. These groups, which include the NCAA, outside journalistic observers (not affiliated with the university), and Louis Freeh (who was commissioned by Penn State to conduct an investigation into the cover-up of Sandusky’s assaults), demonstrated a willingness to criticize Penn State fans and students for their responses to the scandal, shed light on the corruption within the Penn State administration (and coaching staff), and acknowledged the victimized boys. These outside observers also interrogated the institutional habits that allowed the long-term enabling of sexual abuse within the Penn State football program. The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the University of North Carolina encountered scandals of their own in the early 2000’s and 2010 respectively. The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston had been involved in decades of cover-up regarding clergymen sexually abusing minors. In Chapel Hill, the UNC Athletic Department came under fire for a high number of student athletes (mostly football and men’s basketball players) getting involved in fake classes in order to retain their eligibility. While these scandals are unique in many ways, they each possess characteristics that overlap with the situation at Penn State in 2011, as the Archdiocese of Boston’s scandal also involved sexual abuse (and notions of “appropriate” sexuality) and the University of North Carolina’s saga also dealt with the implication of a major athletic program. By engaging in comparative analysis of these three events, many commonalities can be observed in public response to them, including denial, scapegoating, self-victimization, and silencing of threatening discourse. Those affiliated with the Archdiocese of Boston and the University of North Carolina utilized many of the same defense mechanisms as insider groups at Penn State. Thus, it can be seen that similar group dynamics and identity politics have the ability to xii contextually condition individual behavior (insider populations not responding to criminal activity in the same way as they would if an institution they did not identify with were under fire). This comparative analysis proves that members of institutions, as well as their leaders, will go to great lengths to preserve the reputation of their community when exposed to “crisis” situations. These same actors employ the same rhetorical and psychological defense mechanisms regardless of institutional context. These similarities also prove that the pristine conceptions of masculinity, capitalism, and institutional image are consistently prioritized over the lives and traumas of victims of scandal or institutional betrayal. Thus, the responses to any institutional scandal are predictable, although, at first glance, they may seem unique and “subjective.” This thesis also effectively demonstrates how the behavior of seemingly independent-minded individuals is governed by the dominant ideology of the institutions they identify with.


Penn State, child sexual abuse, cover-up, Sandusky scandal

Access Type

Honors Thesis

Degree Type

Bachelor of Arts


Comparative Humanities

First Advisor

John Hunter