The current sordid child sex molestation scandal at Penn State has brought calls for the NCAA to close down the university’s football program. New York Times op-ed columnist Joe Nocera has called for Penn State to cancel their 2012 football season. Chicago sports attorney Eldon Ham, an adjunct professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law wrote, “To get the full attention of Penn State and every other out-of-control college football program in America, the NCAA should take away Penn State football - if only for a while”. The Nation’s Katha Pollitt goes even further, “Cancel the season. Fire everybody. Start again. Or maybe don’t start again. Maybe cancel college football too”.
There is precedent for drastic action. At least as far back as the 1930’s, college football and American higher education have had an uneasy relationship. University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins eliminated varsity football from the school, deploring the hegemony of football over the university’s prestigious educational programs. Southern Methodist University received a “death penalty”, losing its football program for nearly two years in the 1980’s for egregious recruiting violations that extended all the way to the governor’s office.
Closing Penn State football would unquestionably be a cataclysmic blow to the University. Until the 1950’s, Penn State was a nondescript agricultural school, compared unfavorably to its distinguished In-state Ivy League counterpart, the University of Pennsylvania. In large measure due to its winning football program under coaches Rip Engel and his successor, the recently dismissed Joe Paterno, Penn State has become a respected academic institution and one of the country’s most successful public universities.
But the calculus is complex. According to the grand jury report, there are at least eight child molestation victims of Paterno’s long-time assistant coach and second in-command. Many more may come to light in the next few months. Unfortunately, their tragic stories are likely to be overshadowed in the media by protracted criminal and civil litigation (if the sex abuse cases of the Catholic Church are any indication, Penn State will likely be paying significant reparations to victims), conflicting testimony by irresponsible adults about who knew what and when, as well as the almost inevitable tiresome ribbon campaigns at the university.
Will canceling a season or eliminating Penn State football help these victims or other children who might be future victims of other predators? If so, by all means, cancel. But simply wounding Penn State, whatever its culpability, does not repair the victims.
There is a better answer.
A CNN Money analysis of figures provided to the Department of Education reported that Penn State’s 2010 football revenue of $72.7 million was the fifth highest of any college program in the country. Their football profit of $53.2 million was second only to the University of Texas’ total of $71.2 million.
Rather than close the football program, Penn State should earmark a significant portion of those annual revenues and devote them to creating a Center for the Study of Child Molestation and Pedophilia at the University. The money would go to:
*Creating an academic division in the University devoted to studying child sex abuse and pedophilia from their medical, legal, social and ethical perspectives.
*Hiring, as professors, top national experts in the area of child molestation from academia, psychiatry/psychology, social work, and law enforcement
*Becoming the clearinghouse and information center in North America on child molestation and pedophilia for researchers, victims, and others who want to study the issues.
The sad fact is the sordid nature child molestation and pedophilia make it a difficult subject to study or even to discuss publicly. It is a problem that lurks in the deep underbelly of society. So many unanswered questions have been raised by the Penn State case that are difficult for victims and their families to confront – What are the best strategies to prevent molestation? What is the optimal approach to reporting a suspected molester? How effective are background checks in predisposing situations? What role do school-based prevention programs play? What type of long-term psychological damage will a molested child suffer and can it be reversed or prevented with the appropriate therapy?
And there are similar questions about offenders. Do they have a genetic predisposition? Are there specific environmental triggers? Can they be successfully rehabilitated through drugs or other therapy? How can recidivism be reduced through appropriate decisions on sentencing and parole for offenders?
On ESPN recently, the Penn State interim president Rodney Ericson said, “We remain committed to our core values.” A cynic might see this as just one more public relations platitude. Ultimately, talk is cheap.
Memo to President Ericson (or whoever takes the permanent position): If Penn State really wants to reduce the occurrence of child sexual abuse in the United States, don’t close the football program. To address the hideous problems of child molestation and pedophilia, employ the University’s academic imprimatur - and use its football revenues.
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