The Cover-Up Culture

One of the things that has come out of the scandal at Penn State is the realization that there is a cover-up culture in large universities where Division I athletics reign supreme. That term was coined in the cover story that recently appeared in Sports Illustrated detailing the scandal at Penn State. But the notion that misbehavior, from simple cheating to felonies like rape and assault, need to be hushed up “to save the reputation of the university” is common. Not that all aberrant behavior, even at Penn State, manages to stay “in-house.” For example, it was reported by E.S.P.N. that in Happy Valley between 2002 and 2008, 46 players had been charged with a total of 163 crimes ranging from public urination to murder. The fact that these cases did not get national attention at the time is evidence of the immense influence the football coach at Penn State had not only at the university but in the region as well.  Until recent events surrounding the accusations against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State was generally regarded as “a haven of virtue,” as noted in Sports Illustrated.

For the most part, at Penn State Joe Paterno held immense power and saw to it that whenever possible  any misbehavior on the part of one of his football players was handled by the coaches and never got to the judicial board that handled all other student cases.  It is common for football teams like Paterno’s to have separate housing, separate practice and training facilities (even separate from the other athletic teams), to eat their meals as a group, and regard themselves as privileged members apart from the university community. This obviously breeds insularity and a feeling that the group is all that matters and rules do not apply, except for those made by the coaches. Needless to say, the education of the athletes is of minor importance. “There’s an emphasis on athletics that necessarily results in a de-emphasis on everything else,” according to Penn State journalism professor Russell Frank. “But a lot of us owe our jobs to [Paterno], and that’s attributable to how high-profile the football program has been.” ‘Best not to bite the hand that feeds us.

But the universities are at fault to allow this to happen, and all criticism should not be directed at the athletic teams. In principle, it is a relatively simple matter for the university president to disallow this sort of insularity and insist that the athletes be treated the same as all other students. However, it would be supremely difficult at a place like Penn State, because of the immense power that Paterno had, and the football team will doubtless continue to have. Additionally, it would be difficult for any single university to take the lead here, because the athletes expect and like the special treatment and they will seek out other teams that treat them as royalty and avoid any institution that doesn’t treat them as such. Furthermore, the universities are steeped in the cover-up culture, concerned about their reputation and willing to look the other way to protect their image. Thus we can expect the cover-ups to continue.

This short-term thinking that equates protecting the reputation of the university with secrecy in the face of misconduct extends beyond the athletics programs, of course. The “cover-up culture” permeates large — and even small — colleges and universities. In point of fact, I was involved in such a cover-up at the University of Rhode Island years ago when it was discovered that a fraternity had gotten a copy of the final exam in a logic class and those of us who were teaching logic had to get up at 5:00 AM the morning of the exam and pool our resources to put together another exam at the last minute — in spite of the fact that we all taught the class differently: no one knew whose exam had gotten out. When it was revealed that one of the fraternities on campus was selling the exam to other students — lined up into the street outside the frat house — absolutely nothing was done. Thinking the fraternity should at the very least be put on probation, I raised my voice in protest and was called into the Dean’s office and told to cool off. I was a lowly Instructor without tenure, so I did as I was told. But it was clear to me that the university didn’t want a “scandal” and wanted to keep things under wraps. They feared bad publicity above all else. In my way, I saw first hand how insidious is the cover-up culture. Imagine how intense the pressure must be in a large university with an athletic program that brings in millions of dollars to keep things “in-house” and make sure misconduct is hushed up.

It all comes down to priorities, of course, and it exemplifies, among other things, short-term thinking. But consider the irony: the cover-ups at Penn State that were supposed to preserve the university’s good name have resulted in a sullied reputation that will take years to clean up. The $1.5 recently pledged by that university to help abused children as recompense for the atrocities charged against Jerry Sandusky is a first step. But it is a small step in light of the atrocities alleged against an assistant football coach and the cover-up that followed.

The encouraging thing is that at least one other major university seems to have gotten the message. Syracuse University recently fired an assistant basketball coach who has allegedly abused young boys. This appeared, on the surface, to be a quick, no-nonsense response to allegations that would most assuredly taint the university’s reputation. We shall see if the effects of the Penn State scandal have long-term effects. Something has to give.

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