Saturday, November 12, 2011

Penn State

Even if you live outside of the US, it is likely that you've heard of the shocking allegations out of Penn State University over the past week.  A grand jury has charged that former Penn State coach, Jerry Sandusky, who ran a football charity for young boys, sexually assaulted many boys over years. Such criminal acts were witnessed by officials in the PSU football program and shared with the University administration, and no one -- no one -- from the witnesses in the football program to the head coach to the University president took responsible action, allowing the abuse to continue.

This is not a scandal about college football, per se, or college athletics. Those calling for the end of college sports miss the mark -- we would not call for the end of universities if such crimes happened in a laboratory.

First and foremost the Penn State scandal is about an institution that lost its way, lost its morals, lost its sense of responsibility and accountability. Sure, the fact that a college football program was involved with a very powerful coach is a central part of the context -- and reinforces the case for athletic program reform. Athletic programs certainly do have too much power, too much independence and are treated with too much deference. Hopefully, the Penn State scandal will motivate other campuses to improve their governance, not just of football and athletics, but more broadly.

Penn State may have violated federal law, may see its debt downgraded, people have lost their jobs, others may go to prison, lawsuits will surely be filed and the NCAA has suggested sanctions. Such responses are entirely appropriate and Penn State officials and employees are the ones responsible for this outcome which began with one sick individual.

But it is not just Penn State who should answer questions.  What about the media, which had initially reported on these allegations six months ago!  Did they do their job?  What about other campuses?  Miami, Ohio State, even my own campus Colorado, have faced difficult situations in recent years. Is there enough data now to suggest that university governance, including and especially that related to intercollegiate sports, needs a make over? 

The Penn State reverberations may be long-lasting.  My worry is that they might not be.


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