Minds for sports, not ethics

December 15, 2011

In discussing US universities' sports programmes and, specifically, the alleged child sexual abuse scandal and cover-up at Pennsylvania State University, the article "Say it ain't so, Joe: US sector's pact with the drop-kick devil" (24 November) shows clearly just what a pact with the devil many university presidents, athletics directors and coaches across the US have entered into.

In the article, one observer says this scandal will have a longer half-life than usual. How mistaken he is. It is more like a nanosecond.

Just two days ago, I received breathless coverage from an online sports news provider, collegeathleticsclips.com, of the 10th annual IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum held on 7-8 December in New York City.

It is described as follows: "a must-attend by college athletics glitterati. In attendance - a total of almost 400 - were D1 ADs (Division 1 athletics directors) from many of the top schools, as well as an impressive showing of presidents, Sr Assoc/Assoc/Asst ADs and people from the NCAA [the National Collegiate Athletic Association], NACDA [the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics], conference people, vendors and media."

Two words in the long release were used as code for the child-abuse scandal. Those two words I italicise in what I now quote: "Sports Business Journal Executive Editor Abe Madkour and NCAA President Emmert 'touched on the challenging topics of the day: Penn State, unfortunate/unfair perceptions of the NCAA and college athletics (too much bad stuff, not enough good stuff), commercialism, etc'."

Penn State. The rest of the coverage discussed how unfairly the NCAA, which organises college athletics programmes, is perceived, how it is wrong to "punish the success" of programmes that generate and spend obscene amounts of money, and so on. Two words - Penn State - and the nanosecond had passed. No mention of the shattered lives of 10 young boys.

The NCAA's standard operating procedure and the ethical climate it produces are akin to the climate and encouraged habits of behaviour that underlay the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.

Within the NCAA environment, looking the other way and seeing no evil are learned behaviours that will be followed even when the evil is sitting right there at the banquet table or "horse-playing" in the shower.

Tom Palaima, Dickson centennial professor of Classics, University of Texas at Austin, 2008-11 representative to the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics

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