"Circle the wagons!" The problem of loyalty in the culture of college sports

What are the cultural aspects of college athletics that led employees of the athletic department and the university administration to cover-up the sexual abuses of revered coach Jerry Sandusky, who was sodomizing children for years in his dual role as the boss of the Second Line charity? Is Penn State football so revered in Pennsylvania that football coaches can’t be held accountable to the same moral and legal standards as all citizens? How come Sandusky wasn’t cut loose and dealt with in 1999, when charges first began to surface?

The answer lies in a disturbing part of the human psyche, in one of our tragic flaws that is essential for survival, but has also created its share of human misery throughout time. I’m talking about loyalty, which has the power to bind you to a group that means more than yourself, but also to blind you to the abuses that a group may make in its own interest.

Loyalty is especially important in sport. How else can a football coach manage the egos of 120 young men and orchestrate the feat of scoring a touchdown?

Loyalty is carried into the management of athletic departments. Most athletic administrators have come from the sport world. They are former athletes and former coaches. They manage their employees much like coaches manage players. Loyalty is a foregone conclusion.

A friend recently observed that athletic departments will protect a person until they cannot be protected any more. They give the appearance of seamless loyalty. An athletic director will defend his football coach’s decisions, up until the point when he is ready to fire the coach. “We don’t have any doubts about Coach X,” repeats the athletic director… up until the day that Coach X is fired.

Can you have it any other way? Can athletic administrators speak openly about a coach’s decisions without undercutting the coach’s authority? The business model of the collegiate athletic department seems to be to tolerate flack, until the coach must be fired in order for the athletic department to save face. Would it benefit athletic departments to have “release-valves,” so that conflicts didn’t escalate privately, up until the point where the only recourse is firing the coach?

Loyalty breeds a “circle the wagons” approach whenever a member of the athletic family is attacked from the outside. Whatever the charges or allegations, the entire athletic department staff will be asked to stand by the side of the accused.

When you circle the wagons, you can’t look inward at the person you are defending. What if his or her actions don’t warrant being defended? How can a coach respectfully decline to support the actions of a colleague who has done something immoral or illegal? While employees of universities may have the right to disagree with his supervisors, the expectations for loyalty in the athletic department often trump university policy. In the sporting world, the penalty for a whistle-blower is significant: you are ostracized from the athletic family.

But we’re naive to think that this culture only exists at Penn State. It exists throughout the world of college athletics, and it makes the environment of a collegiate athletic department a volatile place to work.

Assistant coaches and graduate assistants ascend through the ranks based on their recommendations from their bosses. For a graduate assistant coach like Mike McQueary, ratting out his superiors was not only a moral decision, but a career decision. What football coach wouldn’t have a few questions about turning in a legendary coach like Sandusky? Do you think that one of the questions going through McQueary’s head was, “if I do this, will I ever coach football again?”

The problem is that these two questions are competing with each other. A culture of loyalty makes it all too likely that many coaches are having to consider, “what is morally right?” against “what is best for my career?”

Loyalty of players to coaches is admirable. Coaches have the power to shape young minds for the better, and some might say the influence of coaches can be greater than parents. But loyalty is also the weakness of sports. Loyalty allows fellow coaches, players, fans, and administrators, to turn a blind eye to abuses. In rare cases, the abuses are major crimes, such as those being leveled against Sandusky. But the vast majority of abuses are small transgressions: recruiting violations, fudged athlete eligibility reports, or the poor treatment of athletes or staff. These abuses don’t make the headlines… until they spiral out of control and the media catches hold of it, after which, a coach is certain to lose a job.

What’s the answer? I’m not sure collegiate athletics could function without the strong sense of loyalty and “one-ness” that so many athletic directors promote. But is coaching a true profession? Do coaches have the same employment rights as other employees of the university? Should a coach feel safe being a whistle-blower? When an athletic director informs his or her employees to “circle the wagons,” is that intimidation?

I think a greater level of accountability must be brought to collegiate athletics. Start by opening the books: ask every team at every university to show how they spend their money, dollar for dollar. Most programs have nothing to hide.

Second, universities must bring athletic departments back under their control, or spin them off as private enterprises subject to taxation. Currently, universities have the best of both worlds: athletic departments bring in revenue that is not subject to government taxation (universities are non-profit entities), and because of the non-profit status of the university, athletes are not afforded the rights of employees — rights which would allow college athletes to organize and bargain collectively. Very few collegiate athletic departments could survive as for-profit entities. The serious threat of taxation might make departments look at returning to a truly “student-centered” model: decreasing scholarship money, but also allowing “student-athletes” to have a true college experience.

Third, we need to remove some of the “gray areas” in reporting abuse. The Sandusky case makes it evident that collegiate employees must be given the same type of mandated reporter status that is required for all Pennsylvania employees who work with minors. But for smaller abuses, how strong is the self-reporting system for compliance violations? Should the stakes be lowered to encourage more coaches to come forward with violations? I think this might help athletic departments begin to establish a culture of transparency.

Fourth, if we have serious ambitions for sport as a sacred institution, we need to start treating coaches as the protectors of this institution, and that starts by affording them professional status in our culture. Coaches perform a difficult job, and insidious calls by sports media and fans for a coach to be fired when a team isn’t winning overlooks the moral and civic duty that a coach has been given to perform: to educate and develop young people. As a former colleague once told me, “coaching is a tough job when your job security is pegged on the whims of a bunch of eighteen-year-old kids.” The job is about much more than winning, and until we start to realize that in our culture, the athletic department will continue to be a volatile place to work.

Maybe the system isn’t broken. Any entity that can bring in $10.8 billion a year must be doing something right. Coaches who live on the edge of the “win-or-be-fired” mentality must be highly motivated people, right?

Great question. Ask yourself if you could handle that kind of stress at your job. Ask yourself if you could do anything but keep your mouth shut and work your ass off, day in and day out, only to be let-down by the people underneath you, who you failed to motivate sufficiently.

Oh, and as for the money? People said Bear Stearns must be doing alright with assets of $66 billion. Never confuse making money with doing real work.

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