Penn State’s football program and university leadership: Signs of ethical collapse?

It’s a hard story to miss, but if somehow you did: A grand jury has charged Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky with 40 counts of sexual assault against minors — in essence, alleging that he used the prominence of the football program and his non-profit organization to lure young boys into situations where he could abuse them.

Leading Penn State administrators and coaches — including now dismissed head coach and football legend Joe Paterno — are alleged to have played various roles in seeing that these abuses would not be brought to the attention of law enforcement authorities.

Obviously this is a story that will continue to attract abundant news coverage for months and years to come. (For representative coverage and commentary, see the current issue of Sports Illustrated, here.) However, we know enough to examine this from a standpoint of organizational ethics and integrity:

Signs of ethical collapse

In The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse: How to Spot Moral Meltdowns in Companies…Before It’s Too Late (2006), business ethics & law professor Marianne Jennings identifies a cluster of factors indicative of an ethical meltdown:

  • Pressure to maintain numbers
  • Fear and silence
  • Larger than life CEO
  • Weak board of directors
  • Conflicts of interest
  • Innovation trumping any other priority, such as ethics
  • Belief that goodness in some areas atones for wrongdoing in others

How does Penn State stack up against these indicators?

At least four of these factors appear to be implicated:

“Pressure to maintain numbers” translates into football-ese as pressure to turn out nationally ranked teams year after year. On-the-field success in big-time college sports is a money maker for universities and a huge boon to their admissions offices.

We don’t know how much fear played into the alleged cover-up, but we sure know about the silence. As the facts unfold, it is clear that a number of people in significant leadership positions could’ve acted more decisively, but chose not to do so.

The firing of a “larger-than-life” coach in Joe Paterno certainly accounts for student riots at State College in the immediate aftermath of the decision, as well as the thousands of fans at the team’s last home game who brought signs in support of their ousted hero.

Some of these fans apparently believe that the success and fame of their football team on the field atone for the unfolding scandal of alleged child sex abuse and subsequent cover-ups. One also has to wonder if complicit university officials felt the same way.

The Penn State football website

Meanwhile, it’s all about the game on the Penn State official football website. When I looked at the front page earlier this week, I saw a cryptic reference to an “emotional week” and a preview of a touted matchup against Big Ten rival Ohio State.

The list of press releases was completely sanitized; you’ll find no mention of Paterno’s firing (much less the reason), just an announcement of a new head coach.

So, in Penn State’s corner of football cyberspace, it’s business as usual. A scandal involving cover-ups of alleged child sexual abuse can’t even be acknowledged. After all, the game must go on.

6 responses

  1. The following is taken directly from an online discussion regarding the connection between conflict and courage. The author is Dr. Ralph Kilmann (co-creator of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Modes model):

    I define “a courageous act” as including five essential properties:

    (1) a person has free choice in deciding whether to act (or endure) versus being coerced in some manner by another;

    (2) the person experiences significant risk that he/she could indeed receive physical, moral, psychological, health, and/or spiritual harm as a consequence of the act;

    (3) the person assesses the risk as reasonable and thus the contemplated act (or decision to endure) is considered justifiable (not foolhardy or impulsive);

    (4) the person’s contemplated act pursues some worthy aims (e.g., to satisfy the key stakeholders of an organization or to be true to one’s own ethics, values, and self); and

    (5) the person proceeds—despite the fear—with mindful action (either exterior behavior that is directly observable by others or interior endurance that is verbally reported to others).

    This integrated definition recognizes that courage involves emotion, cognition, and action—whereby a person risks physical, moral, psychological, health, or spiritual harm in pursuit of a noble purpose.

  2. Writer John Scalzi wrote a scathing, disturbing, but morally unambiguous column called“Omelas State University. (Warning, he doesn’t mince words. Survivors of rape/abuse and anyone whose defenses may find it triggering.) If you need to cheer on some blunt talk about what went wrong there, go there.

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