This is some pretty damning stuff about the insular culture at Penn State under Joe Paterno. In the context of the past month, it provides an understanding (though certainly not an excuse) of why even the gravest of crimes and behavior would be handled behind closed doors.
Much of the rationale behind the Penn State culture probably doesn’t sound all that foreign to fans of college athletics. Here are a few de-personalized excerpts:
The cops would call me, and I used to put them in bed in my house and run their rear ends off the next day. Nobody knew about it. That’s the way we handled it.
“(The football coach) would rather we NOT inform the public when a football player is found responsible for committing a serious violation of the law and/or our student code despite any moral or legal obligation to do so.”
(The football coach) felt that “it should be his call if someone should practice and play in athletics.” He said (the coach) felt the school had “overreacted” by deciding to allow reporting of off-campus incidents, and that the NCAA had gone “overboard” with new rules on academic-eligibility requirements.
You won’t have to look far to find support for those positions around your favorite team and its fans. Are the local cops overbearing? Would this all be better settled with a few 5 a.m. sessions of running stadiums? Is it time to draw the line on admissions committees and higher entrance standards?
It might look like a stretch to go from internalizing traffic tickets and tattoos to the kinds of things alleged at Penn State. Michael Elkon had an interesting piece a couple of weeks ago pointing out that it might not be that far of a leap. He suggests “that athletic departments at major universities are places where the default response to any wrongdoing is to try to handle it in-house and to avoid reporting it to the appropriate authorities.”
That’s probably true of a lot of organizations, especially those with a cult of personality where those charged with oversight have a stake in that cult. College athletics, argues Elkon, are particularly susceptible to “ignoring reality” because they’re already so adept at rationalizing the hypocrisies of amateurism and academic standards.
To that end, it helps if the decision-making can be decentralized to remove or reduce the temptation to abuse authority. Georgia is as at-risk as anyone for falling victim to this culture; just look at Damon Evans’ reaction to getting pulled over last year. Jan Kemp is no fan favorite, and the fallout from her case took years to overcome. It’s often a point of contention among fans, but many decisions have, by design, been taken out of the coach’s hands at Georgia. We’ve lost NFL-quality players to the admissions committee. Discipline for drug/alcohol-related incidents are mandated by the university and the athletic department.
There’s always a risk for those controls and systems to break down, especially if pressure can be brought from powerful coaches, boosters, or administrators. Often those left to make the decisions are villified, and it’s reasonable to expect that anyone who blew the whistle at Penn State might have been run out of town. We might not like the (relative) transparency and its short-term consequences, but operating that way does do a little to stave off bigger – and in the extreme case of Penn State, tragic – problems.