Some lessons to be learned: from the debacle at Penn State.
Subject: Teamwork (Sports) (Psychological aspects)
Football teams (Psychological aspects)
Football (College) (Psychological aspects)
Football (College) (Social aspects)
Author: Javors, Irene Rosenberg
Pub Date: 03/22/2012
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Spring, 2012 Source Volume: 15 Source Issue: 1
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 282741122

In November a client of mine came to a session terribly upset about the Penn State sexual abuse scandals. His concern revolved around sports in schools, specifically, the participation of his son on the high school wrestling team. My client expressed anxiety about the coaches and their 'rah, rah' attitudes about loyalty to the team.

After this session I started thinking about American sports cultures, in particular, sports in schools and in colleges. The terrible events at Penn State have given us a window into the worst-case scenario of what might happen within any institution if certain conditions prevailed.

Let us look at collegiate sports programs today. They bring in billions of dollars in endowments. They bring in students who want to be part of a 'winning' culture. These 'sports dollars' provide the needed funds to hire faculty and create jobs. They provide future professional football stars. In short, many colleges need these teams to survive, if not thrive.

The emphasis on athletic programs bringing in needed revenue inevitably results in a de-emphasis on everything else, including ethics and stringent oversight. In the case of Penn State, the football team had its own separate building as well as its own training facility. The football team had achieved a level of unparalleled insularity. Up to this point the coaches had been answerable to no one.

On top of all this, the football players were indoctrinated in what I term 'team think.' As a member of a team, you are taught that the team is all important and comes first regardless of what you might need, think, or feel. To think differently is to betray the team. To report inappropriate behavior may betray the team if the information puts the team in a compromising position. Add to this the billions of dollars at stake if the team is implicated in a scandal, and you have the perfect recipe for a cover-up.

When I watch football on television, whether collegiate or professional, these days it is very hard to tell the difference. I do not see athletes; rather, I sec gladiators who enter the arena to sacrifice their all, regardless of the risks. Such a militaristic sports culture is far removed from the notion of, "it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game." Today it's only about winning because it's all about money, and collegiate players are no longer amateurs but professionals who bring in the money. Collegiate sports are big businesses.

Penn State is learning that to be a real winner they must play the game ethically and with concern for the individual over the team. Hopefully these scandalous events will lead to greater attention by the National College Athletic Association (NCAA), as well as to encourage college officials to contact the police immediately if there are any allegations of criminal activity. In addition, colleges need to review how athletic departments supervise staff members who are in contact with children, as well as to establish some sort of policy or guidelines for protecting children who are involved with sports activities within educational settings.

As an undergraduate in the late 1960's, I was a member of the women's fencing team. I loved the sport and competed in tournaments. I learned self-discipline and valued all the members of my team. No big money fueled our endeavors. We fenced out of a love for the game. Unfortunately this is a concept that has all but disappeared today. The extreme commercialization of collegiate sports has offered dollar success while at the same time fueled criminal cover-ups, non-compliance of NCAA rules, federal laws that give women gender parity in sports, and outright cheating.

As therapists, school counselors, college advisors, mentors, and coaches, we need to be at the forefront in calling for these reforms. The disheartening events at Penn State should serve as a wake-up call for long overdue changes in collegiate sports.

IRENE ROSENBERG JAVORS, LMHC, DAPA is a psychotherapist in NYC. She is on the faculty of the Mental Health Counseling Program of the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, Yeshiva University. She is the author of Culture Notes: Essays on Sane Living.
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