Category Archives: Sports

The Week in Ethics: How “Family” Backfired at Penn State

When leaders refer to their organizations as a “family,” it can be dangerous when they don’t also have a full understanding of the implications and expectations of that metaphor.

While presumably their reference is to a functional family, the question is… what kind of unremitting vigilance is required to spot and address the dysfunctional elements when they show up?

The “family” metaphor is complex as it applies to how organizations operate. Is the parent-child dynamic transcended? Is ego in check? Does everyone feel safe in raising problems? Are leaders seeing the reality of a situation in its totality, taking an accurate pulse? Or, are blinders interfering?

When problems surfaced at Penn State University in 1998 and 2002 regarding the Sandusky child sex abuse incidents, former president Graham Spanier indicated he was not aware that child sex abuse was involved; criminal charges filed against him last week (11/1/12) address allegations of perjury and child endangerment.

In an August 2012 interview Spanier defended his decision (while still president November 2011) to unilaterally support former athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, former vice president, when criminal charges were filed against them. (They were accused of perjury and a cover up.)

Spanier said he held a meeting of senior administrators and reminded them they had all worked with Schultz and Curley for years; that “honesty, integrity and always doing what was in the best interests of the university” was how everyone had agreed to operate. He added he’d defend any of them under those circumstances, as he was Curley and Schultz, if they had also been falsely accused.

Elaborating in the recent interview, Spanier said “…we’ve always operated as a family. Our personal and social and professional lives were all very intertwined. It’s all wrapped up together, and I would never have had a basis, nor do I now, for doubting them.”

At the end of the interview he reiterated: ” We always talked about the Penn State family, and that is how this place feels and how we operate. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody’s connected and everybody’s intertwined, and this is a trauma in so many ways and at so many levels.”

In late September 2012, Spanier gave a lengthy Nightline interview; he was repeatedly asked why he hadn’t asked more questions, gotten more involved, personally ensured that everything was done to investigate whether Sandusky was sexually abusing children. Spanier replied that he had insufficient information to know children were at risk.

Penn State remains under a microscope, with a great deal of input from others on ways to address what went wrong. It is up to them to understand fully how Sandusky, now a convicted pedophile, could operate for so long in the university family and what is needed to ensure their culture is never so vulnerable again.

It turned out that everybody didn’t know everybody. How some were connected didn’t result in Sandusky’s young campus visitors being safe.

Gael O’Brien      November 4, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine. Her October  2012 column is an interview with Kevin Cashman about ethics, leadership and The Pause Principle: Step Backward to Lead Forward.


The Week in Ethics: Why UCI is Wrong and Armstrong Can’t be “Forgotten”

What International Cycling Union (UCI) president Pat McQuaid said at a news conference October 22,2012 revealed more about UCI’s culture than it said about Armstrong: ”Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling and he deserves to be forgotten in cycling. This is a landmark day for cycling.”

Granted UCI (cycling governing body) has an embarrassment factor it would like to forget: it indicated that Armstrong had beaten the anti-doping system for drug testing — including the  218 times it says it tested Armstrong without a positive reading. UCI will not appeal the sanctions (and findings of the report) issued by the United States Anti-Doping Agency against  Armstrong. He will be stripped of his seven Tour de France wins and banned from the sport for life.

Ban a man, wipe out an embarrassing  chapter in cycling history?

That delusional approach might stand a better chance if  doping in cycling hadn’t been allowed to exist for generations, embedded in the culture, before Armstrong appeared on the scene. His contribution took beating the system to a whole new level.

Remembering Armstrong, others who’ve been caught and winners who escaped detection, is the best way for UCI to begin its understanding of its own role, and that of anti-doping agencies and others, in creating the culture they should commit to changing.

Whether it is Wall Street or cyclists pedaling on the streets of France, the obsession to win, to rationalize actions in order to compete on a so-called “level playing field” creates a short-term win that destroys long-term sustainability.

Organizations get the culture they foster.  Fighting fire with fire generally means in the long run everyone gets burned.

Gael O’Brien      October 22, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine. Her September  2012 column is about CEO Compensation and retiring the rock star myth

The Week in Ethics: Accountability and the NCAA

Who holds a governing body accountable for clear, consistent, equitable administration of its rules, and when merited, punishment that doesn’t exceed its mission or oversight authority?

If you are the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and can shut down athletic programs, take away scholarships, impose fines, and require consent monitors among other things, accountability is a board of member institutions self-policing. NCAA’s complex governance structure  needs a GPS system to navigate.

Televised college athletic games are a huge business. NCAA says it distributes 96 percent of its $10.8 billion, 14-year agreement with CBS and Turner to the conferences and participating schools.

Increasing public criticism of NCAA ranges from inconsistently applied sanctions, to corruption in college athletics to going beyond its mission and authority in doling out punishment.

The recent crisis at Penn State involving an assistant coach convicted as a pedophile has fueled more criticism of how NCAA does business. Its severe sanctions in August 2012 raised concerns by Pennsylvania’s governor (also a university trustee) and others that NCAA exceeded its mission and oversight.

If, for example, Penn State was bullied by the NCAA into accepting severe sanctions in lieu of having the football program shut down for several years that further erodes trust in how NCAA operates.

In order to move on, August 29, 2012 Penn State University says it agreed to the terms of the NCAA Athletics Integrity Agreement. Within the board of trustees, the faculty and elsewhere, NCAA’s handling of this matter – and the university’s acceptance of it — continue to be a source of contention.

NCAA acknowledged when it announced the sanctions last month that it hadn’t followed its own policy of conducting its own investigation into the areas under its purview at Penn State.

Instead, it accepted the findings of the Freeh Report – an independent investigation commissioned by Penn State to address child sex abuse – which addressed a broad spectrum of issues including university governance, administration, and culture, as well as the protection of children in university facilities. NCAA mandated that every recommendation of the Freeh report be carried out and appointed a monitor to ensure it.

It begs the question of what the appropriate role should be for the NCAA as a governing body when egregious criminal behavior occurs at a member institution that is being addressed appropriately through the criminal justice system?

What should the NCAA’s governance look like as a governance body?  What should its leadership look like? Is it as Sports Illustrated suggests, just about winning games or being prevented from winning games?

Where will the push for accountability and commitment to action come from for NCAA to address its own leadership?

Gael O’Brien      September 4, 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

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

The Week in Ethics: How PSU’s President Spanier and Coach Paterno Lost the Game

Update November 1, 2012: Criminal charges were filed today against former president Graham Spanier for perjury, criminal conspiracy, obstruction and endangering the welfare of children.

Update January 23, 2012, Joe Paterno died January 22, 2012. See my column “After Paterno, Penn State’s Struggle to Rebuild Trust”in Business Ethics Magazine.

Update December 3, 2011, In a New York Times interview published today, Jerry Sandusky  says “I am not the monster I’ve been made out to be,” asserting, “I’ve never engaged in sexual acts with these young kids.” Speaking in incomplete and disjointed sentences , he says in an audio excerpt, “Some things could be plausible that they came up with. I don’t know. They haven’t been fair. And I guess it has created a monster.”

UPDATE November 9, 2011, 8 PM   Coach Paterno and President Spanier fired by Penn State University Trustees in a meeting tonight. Effective immediately, Spanier is replaced by Rodney Erickson as acting president and Paterno is replaced by interim Head Coach Tom Bradley. In a statement, the trustees said the university “has always strived for honesty, integrity and the highest moral standards in all of our activities. We promise you that we are committed to restoring public trust in our university”.

It makes no sense that a university president, who is also a noted sociologist, and a Hall of Fame football coach, who is a sports icon, would fail to do everything in their power to find out if young boys were being sexually abused on campus by someone involved with the university’s football program.

And yet, Graham Spanier,  President of Penn State University, and head coach Joe Paterno didn’t, according to the findings of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office Grand Jury investigation. The investigation addressed the reported sexual assaults of male children by Gerald (Jerry) Sandusky, one of Paterno’s former coaches.

Strident criticism has mounted in the last few days calling for both men to resign or be fired. Paterno announced his resignation today (11/9/11) to occur at the end of the season. Rumors have escalated that Spanier will lose his job. (Spanier was fired tonight as was Paterno.)

These are honorable men who have been associated with high ethical standards so the question becomes why weren’t they vigilant in getting to the truth or dealing with the matter head on?

Is it  about protecting a storied football program that hasn’t had a NCAA violation?

Or that even in service of good – the shaping and educating of college students – leaders can lose their way, caught by compartmentalization, rationalization, fear, or misplaced priorities?

Whatever the answer, the university’s scandal is also about failed leadership and the harm done to trust and reputation.

Paterno, PSU head football coach for the last 45 years, and one of the most revered coaches in football history, said about the sex abuse revelations, “With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.”

Paterno and Spanier, president for the last 16 years, were not charged in the investigation. However, criminal charges related to 40 counts of child sex abuse were filed November 5, 2011 against Sandusky; Athletic Director Timothy Curley and Gary Schultz, Senior Vice President for Finance and Business, were charged with perjury and failure to report suspected child abuse. All three pled not guilty.

The incidents of child sex abuse alleged against Sandusky are outlined in a timeline. Many are reported to have occurred when Sandusky brought children to campus. He founded an organization for at-risk youth. However, the 1998 and 2002 incidents in campus showers particularly raise questions about what Paterno and Spanier knew, should have known, and what should have been done.

Sandusky admitted inappropriate sexual conduct in a 1998 investigation triggered by an 11 year-old’s mother. The investigation involved PSU security and the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare. He didn’t lose his job. In 2002, a graduate assistant saw him having anal intercourse with a 10-year old, and reported it. In dispute is what Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier understood to have happened. PSU did not conduct an investigation according to the graduate assistant, now a PSU coach, nor were the police notified as required by law. The child wasn’t identified to see if he needed help or treatment. Sandusky, who retired in 1999 but was a volunteer in the football program, had his locker room keys taken away, but didn’t  lose campus access.

When the Grand Jury made charges against Curley and Schultz, Spanier announced his unconditional confidence in how both had handled the accusations, a highly unusual step for a leader to take before all the facts are in.

It is hard to understand why Spanier didn’t insist on an investigation to ensure he knew whether the university was being put at risk, or putting community children at risk. It begs the question if these incidents had been associated with an English teacher, rather than a football coach, would the PSU’s actions have been the same?

Much will be said about Coach Paterno’s legacy. At 84-years old, with more than 60 years involved in PSU, he is beloved far beyond the university’s campus. Why he didn’t fire Sandusky or eliminate his volunteer status isn’t yet known.

Spanier called the allegations about Sandusky “troubling. He said, “It is appropriate that they be investigated thoroughly. Protecting children requires the utmost vigilance.”

Protecting children does require utmost vigilance; a vigilance neither his actions or those of  his team appear to have demonstrated to PSU’s stakeholders.

He moderates a national talk show “Expert Opinion,” on Big Ten Network on issues impacting college athletics.  If he retains his position at PSU and as show moderator,  perhaps his next topic should be “How to Protect College Athletes and Community Children from Predatory Coaches.”

Gael O’Brien     November 9, 2011

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics MagazineHer latest column is about CEO firings.