The Week in Ethics: NCAA, Culture, and Leader as Bystander at Penn State

July 23, 2012, Penn State University accepted the far-reaching sanctions in the Consent Decree imposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

The NCAA indicated it relied on the investigation and findings of the Freeh Report issued July 12, 2012. The report addressed Penn State’s role in not protecting the young boys sexually abused by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Penn State’s situation involves several individually complex issues including:

  • Problems inherent in big money sports at NCAA member schools and excessive spending on intercollegiate athletics
  • How a university creates a culture consistent with its principles and eliminates silos by integrating all areas, including intercollegiate athletics, with the broader university community
  • What happens when individuals, especially leaders, become bystanders, see harm or potential for harm, but don’t do all in their power to protect potential victims

Many will debate whether the NCAA sanctions went far enough or too far, and others may revive the issue of NCAA inconsistency in its sanctions and penalties.

However, by accepting the consent decree (and avoiding further distraction), Penn State remains consistent with its many statements over the last several months that it is committed to addressing its culture, the role of athletics, ethical leadership and behavior, transparency, and rebuilding trust.

The scope of Sandusky’s sexual abuse was a first for NCAA-member institutions; however, The Shame of College Sports and NCAA’s problems fostering ethical cultures are evident in frequent football and basketball scandals.

If Penn State is successful in its effort to ensure a sustained integration of intercollegiate athletics with the broader Penn State community, the best practices that result could be a model for other universities.

The importance of giving voice and action to one’s values — which is the opposite of a bystander role — will also need to be addressed in Penn State’s culture focus.

The Freeh report’s investigation identified a host of bystanders where evidence indicated they knew or should have known about Sandusky’s sexual abuse and didn’t stop it.

These include leaders — former coach Joe Paterno, former president Graham Spanier, two administrators facing a perjury trial next month, and trustees who didn’t ask enough questions. It also includes Michael McQueary, athletic department members, janitors, and those involved in the 1998 investigation of Sandusky.

The former coach’s family defends Paterno, who died in January, saying not all the information is known. Spanier also disputes the Freeh report findings in a letter to the Penn State Trustees. It is unclear if Spanier will face legal action.

The issue of the bystander is a powerful lesson, driving why children weren’t protected and Penn State’s crisis.

So many emotions  and rationalizations contribute to the silence and inaction of bystanders. Facing History and Ourselves, an organization that supports teachers in helping students link history to moral choices, offers a series of illustrations of the bystander behavior in the civil rights movement, the Holocaust, genocide and in bullying.

For Penn State, and any organization re-examining its culture, the role of the bystander offers insights that need to be addressed.

Concern with reputation, fear of reprisal, not knowing what to do when problems occur, and not having had a reason before to think through what it means to stand for something are among the issues needing ample discussion and training at all levels….giving new meaning to “We are Penn State.”

Gael O’Brien       July 23, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine. Her July 12, 2012 column is Penn State Scandal Highlights Failures in Leadership and Culture

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Explore posts in the same categories: Culture, Ethical Behavior, Ethical Leadership, Leadership, Reputation, Sports, Tone at the Top, Transparency, Trust

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