7 November, 2011

Who Takes Care of the Student Athlete?

img_9544Two days ago the vast state of Pennsylvania woke up to news of a fresh scandal involving allegations that a coach at Penn State University sexually assaulted and abused at least eight student-athletes in his care. You can read more about the case here. Below, a few snippets form the case:

Sandusky, 67, faces 40 abuse charges, including 21 felonies. Sandusky, released on $100,000 bail, is charged with abusing eight boys between 1994 and 2009, with some incidents said to have taken place in a Penn State athletics building. He retired from Paterno’s staff in 1999.

Athletics director Tim Curley is going on administrative leave at his request, according to a statement from the school board of trustees late Sunday. Senior vice president for business and finance Gary Schultz will step down and go back into retirement. The two face charges they perjured themselves before a grand jury and failed to notify law enforcement authorities of child sexual abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky.

A student athlete is defined as “a participant in an organized competitive sport sponsored by the educational institution in which he or she is enrolled. The term student-athlete is used to describe the direct balance of a full-time student and a full-time athlete.” The NCAA has clear guidelines (sometimes observed in the breach), regarding the management of the student (who is also an athlete), and the degree to which a coach can and cannot be involved in the conduct of the student’s life outside the time allocated to coaching that student in a sport and the playing of that sport.

I had reason to look into those guidelines with regard to the management of high school athletic programs here in the Lower Merion School District and I was shocked to discover that many of the laws governing that relationship between coach and student at the NCAA level were being violated by one of the coaches at the high school. Agreed, the NCAA guidelines do not cover high school athletes, however, it stands to reason that whatever limitations are places upon college coaches who are dealing for the most part with adults, ought to be far less severe than guidelines in place at high schools for coaches dealing with minors, particularly those coaches who are working with children of the opposite sex, even more so if the child’s health is at risk.

How is it possible, for instance, that there are clear guidelines for teachers who see students perhaps once a day for an hour – and never img_5691send them emails using a personal email address not associated with the district whether school is in session or not, or invite them to dinner in their homes or make mixed CDs for them, or abuse their parents, or demand that they do not participate in other school sanctioned activities, or bully them one at a time into agreeing to continue participating in a class of the teacher’s choice – but none for coaches who spend several hours with students within and outside the school environment? In all fairness, this particular school district (Lower Merion), is taking this discrepency very seriously. After all, we live in an area where you can’t sneeze without a gesundheit from a trigger-happy lawyer.

11/10/11 – Addendum:The documents released by the grand jury in the case against Sandusky describes the testimony of Steven Turchetta, the assistant principal and the head football coach at the high school that Victim 1 attended:

Turchetta characterized Sandusky as very needy within the mentoring relationship he established with Second Mile students. Sandusky would often want a greater time commitment than the teenagers were willing to give and Sandusky would have “shouting matches” with various youth in which Turchetta would sometimes be the mediator. Turchetta would also end up being Sandusky’s point of contact for a youth he had been unable to reach by phone the previous evening. Turchetta testified that Sandusky would be “clingy” and even “needy” when a young man broke off the relationship he had established with him and called the behavior “suspicious.”

As the administration in general and principals and athletic directors in particular within the schools that belong to this district deal with these matters, they would be wise to reflect on the events unfolding in our own backyard at PSU. In the end, the adults in charge are to blame. In the end, the particular adult who broke the rules of engagement isn’t the only one to take the fall, and with good reason. The people who supervise the coaches and the people who supervise the people supervising the coaches are all culpable. Schultz and Curley are history and there are calls that the board of trustees fire Graham Spanier, the president. head coach, Joe Paterno and Graham Spanier have both been fired. Underlining all of this is a gigantic financial price tag that the university will have to fold into a budget that is supposed to deliver services to students. That’s usually the way things shake down. It would be a pity if this school district (which is beleaguered by people who rush to lawsuits before trying to get school staff and district administration to do the right thing), refuses to take the complaints of multiple parents seriously and ends up precipitating exactly the kind of negative publicity, financial burden and demoralizing school environment that are part and parcel of lawsuits.

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3 Responses to “Who Takes Care of the Student Athlete?”

  1. Ru says:

    This is an email I received in response to the post above. With permission from the writer, and having removed any identifying markers, I am posting it here as a comment because it broadens the discussion and raises the concern that in ignoring the power dynamic between those in authority (teachers, coaches), we become culpable in the crimes they commit.

    Dear Ru,

    Far more difficult to express is my own reaction to the Penn State story because it is visceral. As you know, I suffered molestation when I was 7, by a stranger, and repeated incidents at the hands of my best friend’s father when I was in JHS. I also suffered countless incidents on the subways and in the streets of NYC when I was in HS and college, which were even more frightening as I was in a mob situation, surrounded by a crowd from which there was absolutely no way to escape, no way to get home… I commiserated with my friends, who also suffered from these indignities, but we concluded, I suppose, that they were, like the molestation by my friend’s father, the price we paid for certain things which were important to us. To have a friend (my only one at the time) in the ceaseless humiliation and misery of JHS, I had to tolerate the nighttime groping; to attend (X high school), which was a miracle of acceptance and interesting work, I had to survive the subway fondling. Those of us in marginal circumstances, without many choices, accept the losses we cannot seem to escape and focus on the positive and try to get out.

    This ties in with your post about HS coaches (always suspect to me!) cuts to the heart of the discussion, which is powerand its relation to sports in schools in this country. We know that abusers seek out the most powerless as their victims in order to reinforce their own perception of their power. The child/adult is only the most obvious manifestation of this dynamic: poverty or dysfunction is the other part of this (ably described by Goldy, last name unknown to me, a political correspondent on CNN) and reminds me of the classic use of sports (along with show business) as an escape route from poverty.

    The idea that college students are adults is a fiction invented by college administrations to exempt them from responsibility, not least because, as I pointed out to my son when he had issues with a professor, the student is essentially powerless when dealing with administration or professor. Just as women in the workplace who are victims of sexual harassment must flee first and seek redress second, women harassed in college or even graduate school (as I was, again, repeatedly), who don’t have many places to go to get away from this behavior, are seldom listened to, especially as the strictures against “relationships” have been relaxed so far. Informed consent is far different from constrained consent. Academe is dysfunctional, and schools which place sports above scholarship (HS on up!) are part of this dysfunction, but really reflect other ills in our society.

    S

  2. Clarence Young says:

    Not a day goes by that some part of me isn’t terrified that my 13 year old niece is out there in this world, particularly her school, which is supposed to be a haven of sorts. If coaches need one-on-one time with a student, it had better be documented and an assistant coach present. Any teacher for that matter. It’s to the point where kids need to keep tiny spy cameras on them at all times. Athletic departments have a built-in exemption where they can say, “Hey, it’s physical; there’s going to be contact between us and the kids, there’s going to be this dichotomy of us in your kids’ faces and there’s not a thing they can do about it, that’s how sports works.” Which is abhorrent. Even at a college level that’s the mentality. And it’s amplified by a fraternity of silence. From grade school to grad school there should be clear cut guidelines of conduct of school administration, with special emphasis on extra-curricular activities.

  3. Francie McComb says:

    Ru:

    I share your concerns. There are sports both at LMSD and elsewhere in which the intrusion into athletes lives are overwhelming. Six day a week practice, “mandatory spirit dinners” (how can “mandatory” and “spirit” be in the same sentence?). Lots of discussion of the affect of diet on performance, but we all know they aren’t encouraging the students to gain weight. In crew, there is a rule– which is enforced– that students get one solid day off. Why do they need that rule? Because otherwise it would be seven days a week, three hours a day. An amazing world we live in.

    And in other sports, notably swimming, the coaches try hard to balance and respect the athletes as students, playwrights, and overall people. How do they respect that while other sports do not? Is it true everywhere, does it depend on the sport, what do the statistics tell us?

    So I think a broader community discussion is not just appropriate, but essential. Teenagers are vulnerable and if the Penn State lesson teaches us nothing else– it should warn administrators and parents alike of over-intrusive coaches and athletic programs which lose sight of their values. Ironically, Joe Paterno was famous for being an exception– valuing classics and libraries as well as football, encouraging his students to actually get an education. But his fame and success seems to have eclipsed his better judgment. We must be ever vigilant that the same mistake doesn’t occur at our children’s schools.

    Thank you for taking this on,

    Francie McComb

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