Why Penn State Matters

Written June 30th, 2012 by MaliBuckeye

From the beginning, we’ve been cautious about reporting or commenting on the situation involving former Penn State coach and now convicted offender Jerry Sandusky.  As we’ve said before (scroll down), there are plenty of other places to read that type of coverage, and we want to be respectful as possible to the victims and all of those impacted by this situation- Nittany Lion fans included. As a fan whose team went through the wringer recently and who saw another side to their program, I understand that schadenfreude has no place in this story, particularly given the circumstances.

However, the report on CNN Friday night connected with me at a different level- one we’ve talked about here at tBBC before.  If you haven’t seen the report, here you go.

Again, my purpose for posting that wasn’t to point fingers at another program; instead, I want to talk a bit about CNN’s Susan Candiotti’s final statement in that segment. She closes by reminding the viewers that,

…Several investigations remain underway here- You’ve got Penn State’s own independent investigation, run by Louis Freeh, former director of the FBI; You have the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office; You have the Justice Department; You have the NC double A; and you have the US Department of Education all looking at this.

And that’s why I want to reflect on this a bit- This situation is a chance to gain some important perspective regarding college athletics.

To be up front, I’m looking at this from a particular lens. My current career, when I’m not wandering around the interwebs, is as a “Student Life Professional” in something we like to call “Higher Education”.

What that means gets defined on a daily basis (stupid “other duties as assigned” clause in job description), but parts of my roles require my investment in both student support, student accountability(“conduct”, “judicial affairs”, or “discipline” at some schools), and making sure that the University follows protocols established by the state and federal mandating bodies.

So, as I watch that video, several klaxons start sounding; this is serious, for reals. In addition to the unforgivable and horrible things that the victims each went through, it’s possible that the ramifications for the persons named earlier (former President, Vice President, and Athletic Director) are just but the tip of the iceberg, and that there may be implications for the University itself.

As it stands, Schultz, and Curley have been charged with numerous items for their involvement and potential failure to follow protocol in this- each faces perjury and failure to report charges regarding their knowledge of any of Jerry Sandusky’s actions. President Spanier has not been charged at this point; there is speculation that the emails that CNN reported on may change that.

In addition to whatever sanctioning those individuals receive, I’m also concerned for the University itself, as several other important protocols were not followed.  Given the “failure to report” may have kept future incidents from occurring, it’s possible that the University is facing action by the survivors- this may be why they are seeking to address this outside of legal channels. Those have the possibilities of being felt by the students, faculty, and staff of the University- any monetary remunerations would need to come from somewhere; even if it’s the endowment, those are funds set aside for the betterment of the Penn State Community.

Another area where these revelations, if true, could have an impact on the University is that the “failure to report” aspect may also be perceived as a violation of the Clery Act. This may be why the Department of Education is involved; the DoE requires academic institutions to report the type and number of violations that occur on properties or at programs that are within the University’s purview and control.  You can read more about this policy here- a significant implication of non-compliance can be fines of up to $27, 500 per case and (in extreme cases) institutions can be suspended from participating in federal student financial aid programs.

Let that sink in- a University and it’s students can lose access to federal dollars (loans, scholarships grants, work study dollars, etc.). Future students at Penn State might at some point have their financial aid package stripped for something that they had exactly nothing to do with. Like I said, this is serious.

One additional area that wasn’t reported in the CNN story but does have possible implications for the University is the current investigation into how student athletes, particularly football players, were dealt with when there were student conduct violations.  The Chronicle of Higher Education has this ($$), and Deadspin has an excerpt here-

The Freeh Group has also zeroed in on how those and other top leaders dealt with a mix of problems in the football program. Investigators have asked whether Mr. Spanier or Wendell V. Courtney, Penn State’s former general counsel, interfered with the university’s judicial processes to take care of athletes involved in disciplinary cases.

One former top administrator, whom Mr. Freeh’s colleagues interviewed for four hours, provided the investigators with e-mails written by Mr. Spanier and Mr. Courtney. The Chronicle obtained those e-mails, which describe steps the two men took to protect players.

This is not really all that different than what we heard in November- that there were ongoing frustrations regarding the way that some at the University felt that the coaching staff interfered with the PSU student conduct process. And while I’m sure that this is not an uncommon situation at many schools (athletes’ issues being dealt with “in house”), the addition of these possible matters to the already large number of problems is a significant one.

Without getting too detailed in the nuances, the most important aspect of student accountability processes is consistency- have a protocol and follow it.  Institutions that choose not to do this can have their entire process questioned at various levels: a hypothetical would be legal action by a student who was sanctioned severely (suspended?) for a violations that student athletes received a different consequence from; or that a “traditional” student might be able to appeal their situation for not being the same as every student at the University.  The words “fair” and “due process” may be in question as this matter continues.

Again, I’m not claiming to be an expert on these things- instead, I just want to reflect on my initial reactions. If I’ve goofed up some of my logic, please feel free to help clarify things in the comments. Also, it’s not my intent to throw salt in any wounds- I’m hoping that the individuals involved are held accountable for their actions or inaction, and that the larger PSU community is not impacted any more than this situation has already done.

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You’ll notice that I didn’t mention the NCAA at all, in spite of the fact that their leadership has said that they will be taking a look into the matter (I’m guessing “institutional control” will be their focus). That’s because the CNN report, and this whole situation, reminded me why I believe that every college sports fan should be paying attention to this, and why Penn State matters:

College athletics are supposed to be a part of the educational endeavors of an institution.

As I said before, this has been a theme for me in recent months: I’m still trying to figure out how billions of television revenue dollars will be used to support the academic mission of the schools involved in the new “four team event”.

But, the fact is, “sports”are supposed to be just as integral and integrated into the life and purpose of a higher educational institution as, say, the business school or the English department. And, in many of our minds, they’re not.

Granted, this is due in part to the large number of t-shirt alumni that every college has. If you’ve never matriculated on campus, you have a hard time connecting the things you see on the court or on the field to the rest of the University.  That standout wrestler or softball player on Fox Sports isn’t also known to you as “that person in my psychology study group”. We forget that sports are supposed to be a part of something bigger.

Some of that, too, is due to the coverage that athletics receive. While the NCAA reminds us that most of the participants are going pro in something other than sports, the fact that we follow these young adults from the time they’re barely able to drive, that we purchase clothing that resemble the ones they wear, that we critique and celebrate their every action- all of this helps us distance ourselves from remembering that this is just one part of their college experience.  Heck, we’re guilty of it here as well- tBBC doesn’t exactly get pageviews from it’s extensive coverage of the research coming from the Sociology Department.

Another aspect that makes us disconnect is the copious amounts of money involved in athletics. I mentioned the billions from playoffs earlier- that’s just a drop in the bucket of the total that’s being brought in for all schools across the nation. At Ohio State and Penn State and Southern Cal, the Athletic Department can exists completely separate from the University, financially speaking.  However, there are only a few schools that don’t have to take additional money from the academic coffers (student fees, state funding, etc.) just to keep their athletics going. At the majority of these schools, even though they act and are treated as if they were separate entities, the athletic departments should be more closely linked with the University. “Should” being the operational word.

That’s why the Penn State investigations are so interesting to me; they call us back to remember the bigger “purpose” of college sports, albeit in an incredibly unfortunate way. Once the government gets involved, there’s a natural “wake up call” that happens- We’re forced to think about “success” in terms that are much deeper than wins and losses. The ripple effects of the actions and choices around our favorite programs are seen to be much much deeper than our discussion in sports bars and at tailgate parties. The lessons that are taught in the ways student athletes are educated carry significant weight for them and are also caught by the rest of the campus… if they are listening.

What is happening in Happy Valley, what happened in Columbus, what happens in Eugene and Coral Gables and Chapel Hill over the past few years and months are, in their own ways, tragic. While some would rather argue the “weight” of tattoos- vs- hookers & coke -vs- academic fraud -vs- sexual assault as an attempt to mitigate their own program’s transgressions or celebrate the falls of others, the true tragedy lies elsewhere.

The true tragedy is that, in many ways, the ideal of a University Education, of developing the lives and minds of young adults, has been sacrificed for the glory of big time sports.

I just wish we had figured that out before it got to the point were lives were impacted in indescribable ways.

6 Comments

  1. JamesNo Gravatar
    June 30th, 2012 at 10:01 am

    A really great, well written article. Unfortunately sports bring more fame and fortune than a quality education does in this day. As a life long Penn State the last several months have been hellacious for the victims, the University, and the community. Much like it was for the OSU community during the “tattoo” scandal. Closure has almost come for OSU community, and hopefully soon for the PSU community. I look forward to first of many intense battles between the new era’s of OSU and PSU, lead by Coach Meyer and Coach O’Brien.

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  2. Grant EdgellNo Gravatar
    June 30th, 2012 at 4:01 pm

    Absolutely fantastic work, Mali.

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  3. A.J.No Gravatar
    June 30th, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    PSU needs to sack up, and self-impose a “death penalty”

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    MaliBuckeyeNo Gravatar
    June 30th, 2012 at 8:56 pm

    You’re not the only one who thinks that- From Black Shoes Diaries

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  4. Ben HNo Gravatar
    June 30th, 2012 at 10:43 pm

    I loved your article Mali…I hate to say this but IMO that is all those organizations will do is what that reporter for CNN said at the end, “Will take a look at it.” Meaning the whole investigation and how it was “dealt” with. I’ve always said that Penn State and Miami Fl will get next to nothing from the NCAA as well as those others you mentioned. Is it all unfortunate that these things have happened at all to these universities. Will it be the last…certainly not. However Penn State should get harsh treatment from the NCAA for lack of institutional control along with negligence for allowing Sandusky to roam Happy Valley and have direct contact with kids from that organization after “alleged” reports of sexual abuse in 1998 (I believe the Freeh investigation won’t help Penn States cause either). That situation is very disturbing to me…how Joe Pa died from a broken heart of not being able to finish the season bc the horrible way the PS board handled everything. Or of course nothing compares to the innocent victims who were subjected to abuse and longed for attention bc most didn’t have a “real” dad or father figure so they went to a Penn State Football camp headed by a pedophile (WOW). It’s all horrible…down right wonderland for a pedophile was created and maintained by Penn State and then covered up for YEARS! Which is worse…a pedophile allowed to roam a campus and molest little less fortunate kids. Or all those other schools and their problematic situations…??? Not even a question Huh Mali? I know what I would have done to Jerry if that were my kid involved and they told me about that…This situation is sickening as I’m sure you agree.

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    E. M.No Gravatar
    July 1st, 2012 at 11:54 am

    And I know what you would have done if it were my kid instead of yours: Nothing.

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