Did Molestation Continue Because Sports Are Too Important?

The Program in Sports and Society at NYU August 26, 2012 0


Hi. I am Art Caplan and I am at the New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center. I head the Division of Medical Ethics here. I am going to talk to you today about something that doesn’t have that much to do directly with medicine but which I think is an interesting ethics issue and bears on certain issues and problems that doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers have to deal with. It’s the sad scandal at Penn State.

A prominent coach, Jerry Sandusky, has been convicted of molesting dozens of boys over the years, and the issue has obviously made it into the media and investigations have been done. How could this go on so long? Why wasn’t something said? Why was this covered up? That cover-up has touched some of the most prominent people in American academia, especially Joe Paterno, a widely admired football coach whom Sandusky worked for. It was widely believed to be likely at one time that Sandusky would become Paterno’s successor as the coach at Penn State. The president of the university, key vice presidents at the university, and even the trustees of the university — a very distinguished group of people — all for one reason or another did not seem to get involved or say or do enough to get rid of Sandusky and protect these children.

That raises a couple of questions. The first one is, should we speak up if we suspect that someone is molesting or harming a child? The answer is yes. These children cannot look out for themselves; they can’t protect themselves. If you suspect something, you have to say something. There are a number of outlets to go to: Sometimes it’s to the police, sometimes it’s to social services. It depends on the setting, the environment, and where you see it, but saying something is important.

It’s also important to follow up. Joe Paterno said something but he didn’t follow up for years, and Sandusky was running around the campus even though Paterno had made a report. It’s not enough to just say something; you then have to ask, did anything happen? I want to know the outcome of what I reported. Plenty of channels exist for reporting and for following up.

The other big ethical issue raised by Penn State is, how did it happen? There is all kinds of speculation about whether Joe Paterno got away with not doing much because the football program was king. That is partly right, but we know why it happened. College sports have gotten too big, particularly men’s football and men’s basketball. It isn’t just a weird thing that happened at Penn State; many universities around the United States have suffered scandals in their athletic departments. I could name a litany of these: Colorado, Ohio State, Auburn, University of South Carolina, and Mississippi State. Many men’s athletic programs have had scandals, cover-ups, and denials.

Something is wrong with that culture, and if you work at an academic medical center or an academically affiliated healthcare institution, it is time to put pressure on the key leaders of the administration and say, “Sports have gotten too big; the university president has to reassert a commitment to academic values and to the values that we want education to stand for.” The boosters and alumni don’t like it, and people are worried about gifts and donations.

At the end of the day, the university is not an entity that happens to be attached to a sports program. As much as I like sports, and as much as I watch NCAA finals in basketball and the bowl games in college football, they ultimately have to be subservient to the institutions they are at. That’s how Penn State happened.

There is another Penn State coming if we work around universities, work around academic health centers, and don’t insist that the leadership assert priorities. That is something that we can do; we can know what our obligation is when we worry about a child being taken advantage of, and we can know what our obligation is when we worry that the university or our institution is being taken advantage of by sports that have gotten out of control.

I am Art Caplan, at the NYU Langone Medical Center. Thank you for watching.

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