Penn State scandal casts light on cultures of entitlement

by Evan Sporer / Beacon Staff • December 1, 2011

While participants in major collegiate athletic programs are heroized for their capacity to bring glory to their institutions, it is becoming impossible to ignore the growing culture of exemption that certain administrations promote. When those environments shelter illicit and unethical activity, sports programs designed to bolster school pride can do the exact opposite. 

The status of a student or administrator, such as “coach,” or “athlete,” should not place them above the law.

Penn State University has been in the news recently for a sexual abuse scandal that spans 15 years. Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant coach on the university’s football team, stands accused of sexually molesting eight young boys. The allegations against Sandusky are sickening and difficult to come to terms with. But at the same time, lesser transgressions are being perpetrated by other colleges with major athletic programs, and the root of all these problems is all the same.

At Penn State, athletics took precedence over the values of the institution, and that needs to stop.

While prominent student athletes are chiseled into pantheons, and coaches are elevated to hero status, moral conduct is slipping through the cracks, but none of the powers that be seem to care enough to do anything.

Sandusky’s alleged abuse reaches years into the past. There are those who claim reconnaissance, such as coach Mike McQueary, who testified to witnessing Sandusky raping a teenager, and also claims to have filed a subsequent police report. The police denied any such report being filed.

There is Joe Paterno, who claims to have told his higher-ups, and then went about his way.

No matter how you spin it, one thing was not facilitated over this course of time: a thorough investigation in the service of justice. 

No administrator or higher-up at Penn State terminated Sandusky’s employment, as he allegedly raped minors on Penn State’s campus. This lack of action creates a culture where very different, but very serious wrongdoing also occurs.

In the aftermath of the scandal, supporters of the football program came to the aid of head coach Paterno. His advocates cited his 62 years of service to the institution, the $5 million library he helped to fund, and the continued growth of Penn State athletics. However, no amount of good work can undo the purported culture of entitlement and exception that Paterno’s tenure bred. 

But this was not about athletic results; this was a human issue involving the well-being of young boys, not a football score. Paterno’s athletic contributions to the school did not place him above the law, and furthermore, what any athlete or coach does on the field or a court does not exempt them from the rules.

Then about a month after the allegations and Paterno’s dismissal, The Wall Street Journal reported that a former Penn State official who dealt with disciplinary matters claimed football players got in trouble more often than other students, but were given special treatment. Vicky Triponey, a former vice president of student affairs, wrote an email in 2005 to recently resigned Penn State President Graham Spanier stating that Paterno believed he should be entitled to disciplining his athletes himself.

Clearly, this lack of policing extended to multiple levels. It is this exact culture that certain athletics programs foster on the campuses of major universities, creating a slippery slope. The responsibility of administrators and officials who run these schools is becoming obscured by the status they afford these students and coaches.

At Emerson, student athletes juggle the dual responsibilities that come with the title. Athletes are expected, as they should be, to be students first. And that is not just a cliché moniker written on a poster hanging in the gym: Former men’s basketball head coach Hank Smith demanded his players maintain a GPA of 2.7 to participate on the team, and a 3.0 to be a team captain — the NCAA only requires a minimum GPA of 2.0.

While major athletic programs give their student athletes priority course registration, Emerson’s athletes register at the same time as a student who is putting on a theater production, singing in an a capella group, or who has other commitments outside the classroom.

There needs to be more policing of coaches and athletes in these major programs. Whether it means hiring a former FBI agent to patrol the campus,or assigning a campus police officer to shadow athletes, there needs to be more of a presence in the lives of these people.

High-level college athletics cannot continue to be a rendezvous for coaches and players to escape the confines of society. While clearly the moral bar has been set excruciatingly low for the participants in this process, a new standard must be set. Until that happens, scandals like that of Penn State will seem more commonplace than unimaginable.