Saturday, November 12, 2011

A Penn State Report Card

The sad story of allegations of child sexual abuse by a coach who had a 26-year career at football power Pennsylvania State University has brought forth a variety of comments on the educational institution and college athletics in general.  The players in the sordid drama deserve one of two grades—A or F—nothing else seems a good fit. 

Here’s the Geezer report card:

A—Mike McQueary, an assistant coach who as a graduate assistant  says he saw Coach Jerry Sandusky performing a sex act on a 10-year-old boy in the showers in a Penn State football building.  McQueary says he reported the incident to Joe Paterno, Sandusky’s boss, as he should have.

McQueary might have earned an A-plus had he called the cops himself back in 2002 when the incident occurred, but that would have been a lot to expect from one who was a low-level participant in the athletic program at the time and who had coaching aspirations. McQueary has been placed on indefinite leave with pay.  Penn State officials state he may have special legal status as a whistleblower.

F—Sandusky.  A grand jury indictment includes allegations that he sexually harassed or assaulted at least seven other minor boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky is free on bail after his arrest when the youth in the Penn State incident came forward recently and McQueary corroborated the story.

F—Head Coach Paterno. As an experienced administrator in charge of the program within which the alleged crime took place, Paterno should have ensured that police were notified.  Instead, the iconic head coach merely informed his immediate superior, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and a vice president, Gary Schultz, and did not follow up.

F—Curley and Schultz. They apparently did not advise Paterno to report the alleged crime, nor did they contact law enforcement authorities.  Both have been charged with failing to report the incident. Whether or not the 84-year-old Paterno will be similarly charged remains in doubt.

F—University President Graham Spanier. Investigations now under way probably will reveal whether he did or did not know of the incident.  Even if he did not, he deserves a failing grade for maintaining incredibly poor communications with his top assistants.

A—The Penn State Board of Trustees.  They promptly fired Coach Paterno and President Spanier, even though Paterno had offered to make this season his last after leading the football program for 46 years. Curley and Schultz earlier had removed themselves from the Penn State staff.

F—The Penn State students who demonstrated in favor of restoring Paterno to his coaching job.  More reprehensible are individual demonstrators who turned violent and significantly damaged property.  The latter should be arrested and expelled if they can be identified.  The remainder should, at the very least, be required to receive some special instruction on the relative values of greed (win at all costs) and integrity (do the right things).

A—The Penn State students who organized vigils as statements of sympathy for any boys who were victimized, and their families, and for all victims of sexual abuse.  They showed they understood and supported the values that Penn State long has proclaimed it teaches and practices.

F—A few commentators who implied or flatly stated that the incident unmasked widespread corruption in college sports.  The headlines accompanying these stories, and some of the sensational language in the tales, suggested that sexual abuse is rampant in university athletic programs, particularly football.

In more than five decades of closely following sports, including a few years as a sports editor, the Penn State affair is the only instance of sexual abuse of a minor by a coach that has come to my attention. Anyone who knows anything about sports writers knows that given even an inkling of such conduct, many of them would doggedly pursue the story. Child sexual abuse may be common in other institutions, including some well-publicized activities in religious organizations, but it most likely rarely has any association with college athletics.

A—The many critics who cast this incident as a classic case of greed versus integrity.  University officials should be the epitome of men and women who place honor and open and honest dealings above all else. They are among the ultimate role models in our society.  But too often, stadiums seating 80,000 to 100,000 fans and financial supporters and $100-million-dollar athletic budgets seem to be the motivating forces in these officials’ lives. 

At Penn State, a whole series of officials, going right to the top, appear to have participated in a cover up, and if they did so they endangered many children.  Obviously, all believed the straightforward action of reporting an alleged crime would somehow endanger the programs they so love.  Actually, doing the right thing probably would have enhanced the reputations of all concerned, except of course, for Sandusky. 

The bedrock issue in collegiate athletics, as it is today in the United States, is the power of the dollar in influencing decisions that should be made on the basis of ethical, not economic, factors.  Rewarding successful college football and basketball coaches (and athletic directors) with multi-million-dollar contracts is ridiculous.  University presidents could put a stop to the practice, but doing so would risk the wrath of enraged alums and might threaten their own bloated compensation packages.

Some like to draw a parallel between recruiting big-time football coaches and CEOs of major corporations.  “You have to pay top dollar to get a top performer,” that logic goes.  It may have some truth in the business world, but this tenet is ridiculous in the world of what is supposed to be amateur sport. 

It is difficult to find business execs with proven abilities to turn moribund enterprises around or to maintain other huge organizations at a highly profitable level.  It is not at all difficult to find football coaches who have come up through the high school and assistant coaching ranks with winning programs.  A whole lot of them are more than willing to head a major university program for a salary of a few hundred thousand dollars.  The trick should be to carefully examine the integrity of the candidates.  Those who pass that test might be worth a half million or so a year.  Six or seven million is outrageously unnecessary.

The Geezer often has laid the blame on college and university presidents for allowing greed to direct the athletic programs at their schools.  Perhaps the Penn State experience shows that position has been wrong.  The blame might be better placed on members of Boards of Trustees and Boards of Regents. They are where the buck stops, since presidents, unfortunately, are too often complicit in the abuses.

Come to think of it, the Penn State Board of Trustees deserves a bit more that an A for their resolute actions in the football program affair.  Let’s hear it for them:

Hip, Hip, Hooray. . . Siss Boom Bah . . . PENN STATE  TRUSTEES . . . Rah, Rah, Rah!  


schmidleysscribblins, said...

This story is horrible and my heart goes out to the victims. My heart goes out to all victims of sexual abuse in any form.

Sightings said...

I have not really followed this horrible story, except to read the headlines, so many thanks for the cogent analysis.

But, personally, (and completely aside from this incident) I think it's a bad idea to mix semi-professional sports (i.e. football and basketball) with academic institutions. Too much opportunity for power and corruption; very little redeeming academic value. It's a whole different thing from amateur sports which, imho, DO serve to develop young minds.

JHawk23 said...

You nailed it, GG, though as you know I am prepared to cut Paterno a little slack (D+ ?). But indeed, all the money involved in college sport is the root of much evil - not the crime itself, but the willingness to look the other way or to cover it up.