Monday, July 23, 2012

Changing institutional culture -- thoughts on the Penn State sanctions

I do not follow collegiate sports, generally speaking.**  Nor do I watch major league sports.  I guess you could say I'm not a "team" person because the sports I'm attracted to watching (and playing) are singular activities: golf, tennis, running, biking, swimming.

I am, however, a tenured faculty member at a large southern university that has a very active sports culture (more basketball than football, but we have our share of football fans too).  And as a faculty member dedicated to the education and enrichment of the Southern U. student body, I am very interested and invested in discussions about the place of NCAA sports on college campuses.

Which is why I tuned in to the 9am EST press conference at NCAA headquarters to announce the sanctions against Penn State in light of the Freh report--the report that detailed the failure in leadership to report the sexual abuse that Jerry Sandusky carried out against scores of minor children he purportedly was mentoring.  The failure reached the upper echelon's of Penn State's administration and including the much revered and beloved "Joepa"--Joe Paterno, who had once-upon-a-time been the most winningest coach in NCAA collegiate football.



I say "was" because among the penalties imposed on Penn State were

*The evacuation of the wins they accumulated from 1998 (the date at which the abuse came to light at Penn State and therefore the date that marks the failure of Penn State's leadership to end Jerry Sandusky's sexual predatorship of young boys) to 2011.

*The reduction in scholarships to be made available to their football program (10 scholarships per year for the next four years)

*A ban on post-season games (bowl games) for the next four years.

*A $60 million dollar fine (the equivalent of revenue that the football program typically generates during a football season) to be donated to an organization to help prevent sexual abuse and to support survivors of sexual abuse nationwide.

In a quick google search to reactions based on the announcement by the NCAA words like "brutal," "harsh," "unfair," and "too far" popped up.  Continually there has been a rhetoric of the punishments being meted out hurting innocent victims--the student-athletes and coaches who were not affiliated with the events of the past.  There are others (including the NCAA) who believe that the sanctions will help change the institutional culture at Penn State and other college athletics program.  In the words of NCAA's president, Mark Emmert:
"Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people . . . the culture, actions and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in collegiate athletics"
[for more on the sanctions, see this New York Times piece]

However, I'm skeptical of whether these sanctions will actually change the culture at Penn State, at Southern University, or any other college or university that fields a major sports team that competes on a national stage, particularly in division 1 sports.  It sounds pretty to say that we want to emphasize education over sports--that we value and privilege academics over athletics.  But I know that if I assign work the night of a basketball game, there's a great chance that only 50% of my students will do the assignment, study for the exam, hand in a complete final paper.  And they will grumble--at me and my colleagues--for not checking the basketball schedule and assigning work on a game night.  And heaven forbid if Southern U wins the national championship--I ended up cancelling class once I realized that students were simply not going to show up but would, instead, be headed over to the basketball arena to welcome home the national champions.

I like the Southern U students very much. They are an incredibly intelligent, diligent, responsible, and respectful group of students.  But they are also fiercely loyal to their sports teams--to call them sports fans is just a shorthand for saying sports fanatics.  When I first came to Southern U, I vowed not to bend to student pressure to revise my syllabus based on the basketball schedule.  After a decade of teaching here, there is a reality that has set in--an acceptance of the culture that I find myself in, a culture that prioritizes and privileges college sports--if not above academics then I'd say it's an event split--certainly academics are not placed about college sports by a vast majority of students.  And I don't think that the culture of Southern U is any different than at Penn State, USC, Michigan, Virginia...pick your Division I school of choice.

However before I end this post, I want to bring focus back to the real people, the real victims, we should be thinking of--the real reason why the NCAA has put sanctions on Penn State: the children (some of whom are now young adults) who were sexually abused by Jerry Sandusky.  We should not forget that the reason we want to change the institutional culture of a "win-at-all-costs" atmosphere is that we never EVER want what happened to the sexual abuse victims to happen anywhere, especially not at a place of higher learning.  Two writers eloquently remind us of who we really should be thinking of today: Joelle Casteix,*** the Western regional director of SNAP: the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (click here for her statement) and Tom Kinslow, a Penn State Alumnus (click here for his essay), who reminds all of us of the lessons we should learn in the aftermath of Sandusky and the Penn State sanctions:
"These are values and mindsets that have to be established in each and every community across the country. Never believe for a second that you can put blind faith in your leaders to do what's right. As we've learned time and time again, people are fallible, and if unchecked they can do great damage to communities and the institutions they are trusted with."

**I have to add the exception of basketball at Southern U.  Not to watch Southern U. during basketball season is like not being a Red Sox fan when you live near Fenway Park--unheard of and it can be dangerous not to understand the culture of the community you live in.  The second exception, of course, is that I am a Jeremy Lin fan and watched as many of his games as I could during the past NBA season.

***Joelle and I went to UCSB together and is a dear friend of mine--and I am SO PROUD of the work that she does on behalf of victims of sexual abuse.

[Update--July 24, 2012:  Apparently Joe Nocera, NY Times Editorial columnist, is also deeply suspicious/cynical about the amount of change that will happen within colleges and universities as a result of the Penn State sanctions--although he does note that Penn State will have to take a long and hard look at its football program in the aftermath of these penalties.  Whether real and lasting cultural change takes root at Penn State remains to be seen, but I wouldn't hold my breath.  Too many people depend on Penn State to be a powerhouse football franchise--an NPR news report said that the local economy of the Happy Valley will be hurt by these sanctions since restaurants, hotels, shops, and all sorts of other businesses not directly affiliated with Penn State benefits from the football franchise]

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