Friday, July 20, 2012

A Few Thoughts on Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, and Penn State

By now, a tremendous amount has been written in the wake of the Louis Freeh report about Penn State's handing (or mishandling) of Jerry Sandusky. You can read the whole thing, and see Freeh's announcement at the release of the report, here. If you have any interest in higher education, you should probably read at least the summary - though it's not a pleasant story.

Follow-on stories about Paterno negotiating a sweeter retirement package - even while the Grand Jury investigations as going on - have only added more questions. One wag at Reuters even pointed out still more questions - like, does Penn State really have its own private jet?

All of this is interesting, and fun in a sort of watching-a-train-wreck kind of way. For people inclined to root against Penn State, there's a certain amount of schadenfreude going around. And by now, it's pretty clear that the cover-up by Paterno, Spanier, and two VPs at Penn State was pretty despicable.

Cover-up stories are hardly new. The Catholic Church is going through a large, slow-moving wave of similar issues (covering up crimes similar to Sandusky's, no less). Police departments (notably in New York and Los Angelis) have gone through periods of "blue wall" cover-ups in which wrongdoing by individuals within the organization was shielded from outside investigations. So the narrative here is pretty easy to construct.

A number of folks - including my friend & colleague, Steve Saideman - have pointed out that this particular cover-up represents the pinnacle of perversion of the university: the sports "tail" wagging the university "dog". This is certainly true - big-time college sports have become a serious problem at larger universities, imposing both economic and institutional (and, sometimes, moral and ethical) costs. Frankly, I'd like to seen them tossed off campus to survive on their own.

One question that occurred to me, interested as I am particularly in the higher education angle: why sports? What is it about sports as an activity that seems to attract this kind of questionable behavior? Scandals involving sex, money, and cover-ups at universities, to a substantial degree if not almost entirely, seem to emanate from this one area.

Universities engage in all sorts of activities, of course, that have greater or lesser degrees of attachment to their central mission of creating (research) and distributing (teaching) knowledge. The value of sports as an educational enterprise has always been suspect - but so are a lot of things that universities do. Extracurricular clubs and activities and campus-sponsored organizations and resources abound, many of which have only the most tenuous connection to educating students.

But scandals don't come from the Asian Student Association or the campus radio station or even ("Animal House" stereotypes aside) from Greek organizations most of the time. Hazing is certainly an issue (see Florida A&M - where the line between "marching band" and sports was thin if not altogether missing), and that sometimes leads to cover-up behavior. But usually not for long, especially when somebody dies or is seriously injured. I haven't done systematic research, but I'm willing to guess that sports are responsible for the vast majority of serious scandals, and cover-ups of same, involving universities.

It's tempting to blame the money, and many do. There is a LOT of money in NCAA Division I football and basketball - with much of the actual profit going to small numbers of individuals (coaches, league heads, bowl promoters). But (as usual) I think that the better explanation is cultural.

Sports, like most human activities, develops its own sub-culture. In order to build an effective team out of disparate individuals, all sorts of techniques are used to bind the loyalty of the players to the group - in some cases, techniques not that different from those militaries use. Fans, too, are encouraged to tie themselves to the larger whole - witness the use of the term "nation" in sports ("Red Sox Nation", "Buckeye Nation" and so on).

One of the psychological side-effects of in-group loyalty is a tendency to overlook flaws in the group, or in its members. Fifty years ago Fritz Heider was writing his Psychology of Interpersonal Relations and discovering how, if you really like somebody, you see their good points and don't see their bad ones. The stronger the emotion, the more you rearrange your perceptions to fit. Love (or hate) something passionately enough, and you will become delusional - you will see things that aren't there and fail to see things that are.

To me, this is why money and greed are less-good explanations for the kind of scandalous behavior we see in the world of sports. There are lots of ways to get money; a greedy person may love money passionately, but at some point rationality will kick in and they'll seek a better way to acquire it. But sports loyalties, built and developed over time, are deeper, more emotional, less rational. They appeal to our underlying tribal instincts.

The thing about tribal loyalties is that they are very much a two-edged sword. Loyalty to the group can inspire heroic behavior, and produce tremendous results from a group of otherwise-disparate individuals. We watch sports in part because of those inspiring moments when people transcend what we thought humans were capable of.

But tribal loyalty can also bring out the worst in us. Individually and on our own, few of us can be truly horrible for sustained periods - and those that are, are usually caught and stopped or punished. But in groups, where the terrible behavior of the few becomes protected by the blindness of the many, it can flourish. Worse still, as Stanley Milgram, Henri Tajfel, and others have pointed out, groups can make us far worse than the sum of our parts - can inspire us, through the pressure of loyalty, to do terrible things.

There is no escaping the dark side of sports. Certainly, there should be regulations, better accountability, and systems put in place to mitigate these effects. There is absolutely no excuse either for what Sandusky did, or for the failure of Penn State officials to do anything about it for over a decade. But in our zeal to reform, we should not expect to ever conquer this problem completely. With its emphasis on loyalty and identity, sports will always generate bad behaviors or the willingness to tolerate them. The sooner universities realize this, the sooner we can have a serious conversation about the costs as well as the benefits of sports programs, and what to do with them in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Also, most parts of universities are susceptible to seeing themselves as larger wholes -- part of the larger tribe of Asian Studies, or Academe. Two groups aren't: sports teams, where the other teams must be defeated; and administrators, whose "peer institutions" designate rivals for grants, for students, for prestige.