The Sport We Want Places Values First

March 28, 2017

The Penn State child sex abuse scandal is back in the news following the recent conviction of the university’s former president. A jury found Graham Spanier guilty of one misdemeanor count of child endangerment that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Mr. Spanier has maintained his innocence and his lawyer plans to appeal the verdict.

This case follows the 2012 conviction of Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach under the legendary Joe Paterno, the most victorious coach in major U.S. college football. In one of the worst cases of its kind, Sandusky was found guilty of sexually abusing 10 young boys and was sentenced to a lengthy prison term. The fallout was immediate and continues even today.

Coach Paterno was dismissed and died shortly thereafter. Tim Curley, the athletic director, and Gary Schultz, a senior vice president, were forced to leave.

A recent report in The New York Times noted that “the circumstances at Penn State set it far apart from most campus sexual assault cases: It involved the abuse of children, a nationally renowned sports program and the downfall of Mr. Paterno. And the criminal charges that resulted, not just against the attacker but against administrators accused of covering up his crimes, have no parallel in recent memory.”

In a statement released after the Spanier verdict, Penn State acknowledged that former leaders “fell short.” The university went on to say: “…while we cannot undo the past, we have rededicated ourselves and our university to act always with the highest integrity in affirming the shared values of our community.”

Those are laudible words, but I find myself increasingly frustrated by a recurring pattern that generates tangible action only after a crisis and only after an organization is forced to reflect on its core values.

Penn State talks a good game now – after the dismissal of senior coaches and administrators – but where were those values years ago when suspicions of child abuse were ignored?

If we think more broadly about unethical conduct in sport – from doping to excessive violence, match manipulation, and unruly spectators – these are all rooted in the failure of our sport system to model the kinds of values-based behaviours we claim are at the heart of the sport experience.

The truth is that athletes – particularly young ones – are promised a sport journey filled with fun, fairness, support and respect. But too often, they experience something entirely different within a sport system that hasn’t intentionally delivered an experience based on the values we claim are fundamental to the sport we want.

This begs the question: why aren’t sport leaders doing the necessary upstream work to ensure the sport system lives up to the values and principles that we claim are at the heart of what we do?

Let’s face it. Attacking the root causes of these big problems is tough work. The results are slow to achieve and typically don’t materialize for a generation or two. Shifting culture takes a lot of patience, continuous learning, prudent risk taking, and a dogged determination to be true to your values and do the right things. The reactive approach that we see so often today is more about taking the easy route.

As a sport sector facing a steady decline in enrolment and ever-increasing drop out rates, are we willing to take a strong leadership position and attack the root causes of unethical sport. Or, will we continue to settle for the status quo and brace ourselves for more tragic stories?

Surely the time has come to commit – as a sector – to putting values first. Let’s make good values and strong guiding principles the bedrock of Canadian sport.