Former coach: Why the Penn State scandal is different from many others

Amid all the talk of the Penn State child sex-abuse scandal, I asked Public Insight Network member Lisa Nordeen to write a guest post fleshing out some ideas she sent in.

Nordeen, who works as coordinator in Hamline University's academic skills and tutoring programs, is a former athlete and coach. She also worked as the coordinator of academic skills programs in the University of Minnesota athletic program. She has a Ph.D. in kinesiology with a concentration in sport sociology from the U.

All too often when a scandal hits a college athletics program, people say what a shame it is for this to have happened to such a good program or such a great man.

Penn State is the latest major university to face public scrutiny of its athletic department.  From the outside it seems that everyone involved in the Sandusky situation felt they had done their due diligence by passing along their concerns to the next person up the chain of command. Very little was done to follow up on the reporting.

It’s unlikely anybody wanted to be the individual to bring to light problems within an historic program led by a legendary coach. The difficulty standing up to such a prospect is daunting. There is a reluctance to be ‘that guy’, the guy who would step outside the artificial boundaries created by college athletics and put a halt to such disgraceful behavior.

We have all heard what happened. The assistant coach didn’t immediately intervene but instead went to head coach Joe Paterno seeking counsel. Nothing is ever done without the permission of Paterno, and while he made sure that the athletic director had the information, the understanding on any college campus is that you never do anything to jeopardize the program that helps make solvent the department as a whole.

It’s a well-known fact that athletic departments in NCAA Division I universities have budgets many small colleges probably envy.  Coaches often make more money than the president of the university (not to mention the president of the United States). Along with money comes a lot of power. It’s the kind of power that can influence campus decisions and sway public opinion. It’s also the power to be able to sweep any dangers to their team’s success away in a flash.

This probably isn’t too different from what might happen in a large corporation when a threat to the company is made to ‘disappear’ before it sullies any reputations. What generally doesn’t happen, though, is for people to take to the streets in support of CEOs who lose their jobs. Do a Google search and see how many times a congregation has rioted after a religious leader has lost his job in a sex scandal. On some fundamental level, coaches and athletes are held to different standards from those outside of athletics.  They are given the benefit of the doubt.

So sure, similar things have happened in other organizations, but there are differences within the microcosm of college athletics. Coaches are praised, adored and trusted, based not on their morals, but on their ability to win football games. There is something unique to athletics that allows it to operate in a vacuum. There is something endemic to athletics that creates a double standard.  People speak out against the crime but in support of the individuals who allowed it to happen. Somehow those individuals are let off the hook and defended on the basis of their reputation on the field.

One only needs to look back at the University of Minnesota academic scandal from the late 1990s to see a similar trend. People passed the information up the chain of command, yet nothing was done until the actual perpetrator of the cheating came forward in a newspaper article. It was only after the article was published that those involved lost their jobs. Yet even now people look back on this not with the sense of chagrin that should accompany academic dishonesty, but as a source of jokes.  We’re quite adept at moving on and forgetting that it was a popular and powerful coach who was at the center of much of the cover-up.

Could it be the pressure of not wanting to be involved, or is it the additional pressures of a fan base that might send hate mail and death threats?  The thought of facing the fans who live vicariously through athletic programs, coaches and players, might be too overwhelming.

One doesn’t have to look any further than professor Murray Sperber to see this in action.  Professor Sperber has written about reform in college athletics and how the money involved has turned an extracurricular activity into corporate entertainment. This radical opinion had him receiving death threats on a regular basis. Who would want to volunteer to be at the center of that?

It is true that sex abuse and molestation are present in our society.  What makes the recent allegations at Penn State different is that they are tied into one of our culture’s greatest institutions: athletics.  Athletics has only complicated matters beyond any simple response.

Through sports coverage, we come to believe that many coaches and athletes are infallible.  If they run a ‘clean’ program, win games and graduate their athletes they must be of good moral standing and will surely do the right thing.  Not only do we come to believe it, though, but so do those who are at the center of our adoration.

Maybe it is all of us who are complicit every time we are willing to look past the faults of coaches, athletes, athletic directors and anyone else involved in college athletics, not because they deserve our respect, but because we would rather enjoy the game than worry about a crime.

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