Losing our way...

November 10, 2011
Football field at dusk

The child abuse scandal currently unfolding at Penn State University is an important lesson in the tragic consequences that can result when sport loses its way. What happened to these young boys did not happen on a field of play; but what happened to these young boys most certainly happened in sport and because of sport.

Sport, we believe, has the incredible potential to produce positive benefits for individuals and communities. But as we are coming to understand more and more, these benefits don’t just happen in any kind of sport – they happen in good sport, what we have come to call “True Sport.”

In True Sport, our sport policies, programs and practices are consistent with a set of principles; principles that as a country, we have said we want our sport to be driven by. These principles, which absolutely include striving to be the best, striving for excellence, giving everything one has on the field of play to win, also include playing fair, keeping it fun, respecting others, staying safe and giving back. When sport happens in our communities and any one of these principles is violated, whether in the name of winning or for some other purpose, we rob sport of its potential to produce positive benefits.

For example, when athletes cheat by doping in an effort to gain an advantage to help them or their team win, they are violating the principles of fairness, safety and respect. Cycling knows all too well how this has harmed their sport, and sadly, time will reveal the health consequences to athletes who have experimented with these deadly practices.

What we see in sport, whether related to doping, violence, bullying, racism or abuse is that sometimes, some people lose their moral compass. They get their values and priorities all mixed up. Their involvement in sport and their belief that sport is only about winning, clouds their thinking and impairs their judgement.

How does all of this relate to the sex abuse scandal unfolding at Penn State University? The charges against Jerry Sandusky, the long time assistant coach to Joe Paterno, reveal that the alleged abuse was going on over a 15 year period. It has been suggested that the allegations of abuse were brought forward as far back as 1998 and again in 2002, and were brought forward to persons in positions of power who could have done something about it. Both times nothing was done about the allegations. The question is why? As with other similar cases before this, a culture of “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” envelops those involved. Their ability to see clearly what the right thing to do is gets clouded by personal and competing interests. In this case, those interests were directly related to the Penn State University football program. Individuals put the interests of the football program and the university ahead of the safety and well-being of a number of young boys.

Today, all of us can see how wrong that was. But somehow in the midst of creating a winning football program, growing the Nittany Lions brand and driving revenues for the university, those in positions of power could not. They lost their way and the consequences of their inactions will have lasting negative consequences for these boys they should have been protecting and for the football program and university they were misguidedly trying to protect. We all wish that this terrible harm had not been done to innocent and defenceless young boys. We understand the harm will in ways be permanent – it cannot be undone. But while the damage cannot be undone, further harm can be prevented by swift and clear action by the university. Let’s hope their judgement is not clouded by self, sport and school interests and that they do not lose their way this time.