In 2011, the world of higher education — and the entire nation — was rocked by the shocking revelation of the criminal actions of longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Equally shocking was the reaction (and inaction) of then-head coach Joe Paterno and several high-ranking members of Penn State’s leadership team to Sandusky’s abuses. By all credible accounts, this group of administrators did nearly everything in their power to downplay, distract, and cover-up their coach’s actions, all in an effort to protect a powerful football program.
Six years later, has higher education transformed its response to — and preparation for — campus athletic scandals? While there certainly is evidence of institutions working to improve reporting and control systems (particularly in the context of Title IX compliance), it appears that many have yet to fully absorb and act upon the lessons of Penn State. Indeed, an honest look reveals continuing similar patterns in how universities react to crises involving athletes and athletics on campus.
Not all of these scandals have originated from athletic programs, but issues involving athletic teams are often the most closely watched and criticized, as the involvement of student athletes brings greater attention. Players, coaches, and administrators continue to crop up as central figures in these crises. And these incidents continue to arise at institutions of all types and missions, to include the likes of Baylor, Yale, North Carolina, Rutgers, Ole Miss, Missouri, and Syracuse — to name just a few of the institutions that have confronted challenges since Penn State.
The value of procedure
Given the complexity and potential cost of a major athletics scandal, it’s critical that an institution’s first steps be good ones. Yet in too many of these crisis situations, the first step is a misstep, ranging from reluctant action to, in the worst of cases, outright cover-up. University and athletic leadership recognize the financial and reputational contributions of their sports teams and are naturally protective of their status. When this instinct is unchecked, however, leadership may look first to how it can minimize the incident and any related damage, instead of looking for truth and safeguarding the safety of the campus community.