Lessons from Penn State

The tragedy unfolding at Penn State should cause all of us to reflect on our culture.  Last night, watching Andrew Sullivan, Chris Matthews and Bill Maher discuss the incident, I heard three poignant insights.

Andrew Sullivan:  Football is a cult.  

Chris Matthews You have to bring your values with you to your job or your team.  They won't teach you values; in fact they will challenge them.

Bill Maher Wherever women are absent -- football teams, the Vatican, the Middle East -- men go mad.

Those aren't their exact words but the essence of what each shared.  I was struck by all three observations.  As a high school principal, particularly as a non-coaching woman, the football culture was tricky for me.  I worked with exemplary coaches who were excellent role models for boys.  I also worked with others who lacked integrity and, just as importantly, perspective.  Some football teams made me, teachers and the student body proud.  Others poisoned the school atmosphere with their attitudes and behaviors.  When the teams were a positive force, it was because of a strong ethical presence, sometimes a coach but other times a student.

I have seen administrators, most often former coaches, look the other way.  Without intending to, they may play favorites with athletes and cater to them while ignoring or over-disciplining high poverty non-athletes.  As the principal of two high schools, I inherited situations where athletes believed they were special and where attention to the other two-thirds of the student body was regarded with suspicion.  

When misogynistic talk is allowed or encouraged in practices or in the locker rooms, it infects the entire school.  Women on staff and female classmates are devalued and disrespected.  When coaches expect lenience for their players from the disciplinarian, everyone notices.  Worse yet, those players may press the envelope even further, escalating their misdeeds to see just how far they can go.  

A group of athletes at one school had a history of excesses.  In one case, an athlete had deliberately defaced a hallway and escaped punishment.  Another had stolen the school riding mower and taken friends for a joyride, tearing up the softball field in the process.  Another made a point of bullying other students, throwing a shoulder into some while passing in the hall, pushing another, threatening still another.  While each boy had met with the (previous) principal and had a talking to, their punishments were minor, particularly when compared to punishments meted out to other students.  Because their minor misdeeds had been passed on, they escalated.

One year, the boys were upset that the athletic director and I had refused to allow a friend to play.  The boy had not met OSAA (Oregon State Athletics Association) eligibility.  Meeting together at a private home one evening, the boys did a "gallon chug".  Each tried to chug a gallon of milk, racing to see who could finish it first.  They had a bucket between them and all ended up vomiting milk into the bucket.  Then some urinated on top of the vomit and one defecated in the bucket.  The boys then climbed into a truck and drove to the athletic director's home.  One of them -- on a dare from the rest -- carried the bucket to a window where a light was on inside and, seeing the AD at his desk, pitched it through the window, breaking the glass and splattering the room. 
Interestingly, two of the boys initially involved refused to go along to the AD's house, disapproving of the planned assault.  Yet neither of those boys felt compelled to report what had happened.  Why?  These were their teammates, their friends.  Loyalty trumped.  Ultimately, the investigation did reveal the culprits and the boys were disciplined by the school, the courts and -- in a few of the cases -- their parents.  After their initial horror wore off, coaches sided with the boys.  Several coaches provided letters of support and testified on their behalf at the boys' expulsion hearings.  For one of the boys, the pattern continued.  He went on to play college ball and the behaviors continued, getting him in high profile trouble over and over.  He was a good enough athlete though that the college continued playing him.

The soccer teams, the girls' teams, the cross country runners, the high jumpers, the baseball team -- they don't share this culture.  Sure, they're close, often a tight group of athletes.  They work just as hard but are not as celebrated as football players.  Only in football is the team treated like rock stars, regardless of whether they win or lose.  Take a look at the turnout for a high school football game versus any other sport.  A state champion volleyball team would be hard pressed to attract as many spectators as a Friday night football game between cross-town rivals.

If Andrew Sullivan is correct and football is like a cult, we could expect a certain paranoia and suspicion of outsiders.  Only those within the cult would be trusted and the "others" would be enemies.  There would be a defensiveness of the cult's rituals and practices.  If the cult abused newcomers, women, outsiders or children, members would learn not to question.  Hazing?  Mischief?  Drug or alcohol abuse?  Sexual assault?  If the cult was a cult of only men, women would all be "others".

But most cults are insular.  Outsiders look equally with suspicion at the cult members and their practices.  Do school staffs, parents, community members and students treat football teams like cults?  Certainly not.  There may be envy and resentment of their privileges but rarely disdain.  Instead, those outside the culture are nearly as reverent to and protective of it as those inside.

Where athletes or any other group are out of control, there are things administrators and staff can do to address the problems.  Be forewarned though that if the group feels threatened, it will react.

  • Try to build relationships with all students, not just athletes or scholars.
  • Meet with coaches before each season.  Set clear expectations.  Don't demean players by charging they "run like girls" or other derogatory feminine allusions.  Supervise locker rooms and interrupt inappropriate talk and behaviors.   Write out your expectations and have players and parents sign them. 
  • Take time to reach out to the athletes (or other group) at lunchtime or whenever you can (but equally to others!).  
  • Praise their accomplishments but correct misbehaviors promptly and consistently.
  • Try to meet with each member of the group one-on-one before problems develop.  You'll usually find each member reasonable though the group together may not be.
  • Have a consistent discipline policy.  We had a matrix.  Do not allow pressures from coaches or parents to negate discipline.  If students without forceful parents get the punishment, then all do.  Keep in mind that "getting away with" misbehaviors can hurt the perpetrator the most.
  • Equalize sports and academic competitions.  Make sure that athletes in other sports get the same attention in pep assemblies, spirit week activities, posters around campus, morning announcements and so on.  Attend events for all sports (my minimum was one contest for each team).  
  • Check in with coaches during the season.  Discuss expectations, not just team performance or parent or player issues.  Reinforce them and make corrections if necessary.
  • Protect coaches.  Parent complaints against coaches are rampant, particularly new coaches.  Address concerns but recognize that the coach is either barely paid or volunteering, giving his or her time for your kids.
  • Talk about values school wide.  A lot.  Every time you meet with an individual student, a group of students or a parent, make sure that integrity, fairness, courage and hard work are in the forefront of every discussion.
 If we can remember that football, like other sports, is a game, that it's healthy to participate but unhealthy to value it above other pursuits, we can move toward balance in our high schools.  If we don't, we'll have another generation of middle-aged men, sitting around sipping their beers, declaring that those were the best days of their lives.  High school should not be a peak experience.  It should lead you to other, greater peak experiences.

If Penn State can teach us something, perhaps it is to be more realistic and level-headed about high school sports.  Just as Penn State valued itself according to the success of its football program, is there a high school in your town that has had exceptional success on the field and is therefore heralded regardless of its academics?  We must give equal time (well, preferably better than equal) to academics.  We must treat all of our teams equally.  We must recognize that a well-loved coach has extraordinary power over his young charges.  We can hire coaches not to rack up wins; but to cultivate responsible young men and women.  We can insist that integrity and courage are valued as much as loyalty.