A Reflection on Sports Scandals

Burke Bindbeutel, University of Missouri School of Law

My recent post discussed a theoretical link between sexual abuse and college sports. I criticized how fans and administrators have shrugged off athletes’ bad behavior because they were so valuable to the school in their capacity as players. The intervening scandals at Penn State and Syracuse partially confirmed my hunch, but they also showed how my analysis was lacking. Sex offenders are obviously subject to the full force of the law. It’s the culture that surrounds their deeds that we could most improve.

The serial abuse at Penn State implicates not just the perpetrator but everyone who kept it quiet. We don’t yet know who knew what and when, but it appears likely that a kind of “institutional liability” should apply to a football program that did not prevent Coach Sandusky’s behavior. Supporters of the university have argued for leniency, insisting that Coach Paterno was instrumental in transforming a backwater agricultural school into a deep-pocketed educational juggernaut.

And this is where those of us hanging around outside the stadium ought to speak up. It seems painfully evident that a university should not consider raped children to be collateral damage to its educational mission. But there remains a pervasive loyaty to football programs that even sordid headlines cannot disrupt.

This should not surprise reproductive justice advocates. College sports are an entertainment industry leviathan. Tales of corruption and unethical behavior don’t seem to bother the fans. Football teams act as a publicity tent-pole for the rest of the university, attracting alumni dollars and prospective students. The University of Missouri was recently criticized for spending a measly $58 million last year on its athletics department: it had better start investing seriously in sports if it wants to succeed in the Southeast Conference.

Institutions like these bounce back from boycotts, and they can easily ignore signs heaping shame on them, not that those efforts are meritless. Certainly events at Penn State deserve condemnation.

But campus RJ advocates should not expend all their rage on retired coaches at someone else’s university. The sensationalism of the Penn State scandal might distract from a problem that exists on every campus. Sexual assault is an all-too-typical part of our environment, often exacerbated by alcohol abuse and made possible by the winking, oblivious-to-consequences culture that Katy Perry has been glorifying.

A hideous scandal can help remind us of how people in high places have a strong incentive to keep their mouths shut. But let’s keep our eyes on the ball (so to speak), and ignore the relentless provocations of the 24-hour news cycle. The Green Dots is a campus program that empowers students to eliminate violence not by bemoaning past incidents, but by taking initiative. The “dots” represent moments of bystander intervention, with a goal of making an environment that’s thoroughly intolerant of violence. When it seems like the wrongdoers are protected by money and irrational sports fandom, it’s important to recall that we all share responsibility for our communities.