Opinion: Losing with Wins

Photo by Derek D.  License available here.

Late Friday afternoon, when they thought no one would notice, the NCAA announced that a settlement had been reached in a lawsuit concerning the association’s response to the child molestation scandal that shattered Penn State University and its football program.

The agreement states that the school will give $60 million to Pennsylvania-based programs preventing child sexual abuse, and that the NCAA will restore Penn State football head coach Joe Paterno’s career record, making him once again the winningest coach in college football history.

If there is greater proof that the institution of collegiate athletics needs to recalibrate its moral compass, I’ve yet to see it.

After the story broke in 2011 that Jerry Sandusky, a longtime member of Paterno’s coaching staff, had repeatedly molested multiple children—sometimes in Penn State athletic facilities—an investigation revealed that Paterno and others failed to act after specific suspicions of abuse by Sandusky were brought to their attention.

In response, the NCAA leveled unprecedented penalties against the school, including stripping Paterno of all his victories from the time Sandusky was first accused until the end of his final season.  Now, after steadily walking back its other sanctions against the program, the NCAA has made its most glaring concession yet by putting Paterno back on his pedestal.  In doing so, the association has shown its true colors.

What this agreement says is that winning is more important than integrity; that winning is more important than accountability; and that winning is more important than the safety of innocent children.

This should be a wake-up call to everyone working in college sports of just how desperately significant institutional change is needed.  In a culture that preaches those values, what hope is there of building a community that champions respect, inclusion, and allyship?  This agreement makes it harder for people to speak up against bullying and discrimination, or worse, if they believe their complaints will fall on deaf ears.  It discourages people from taking the necessary risk of challenging the status quo.

Both Penn State and the NCAA have failed the athletic community by brokering this bargain and attempting to erase an upsetting and, yes, important episode in college sports history.  It is an insult to the victims of abuse and their families, and to those who have undertaken the enormous task of restoring Penn State’s reputation.  Advocates and activists everywhere should seize on this moment and double their efforts to improve the culture of athletic communities, to get face-to-face with players and coaches and fans and make them understand that win-loss columns are not the best or most lasting measure of victory.

On Friday, the NCAA played by Penn State’s rules: they did something reprehensible and hoped nobody would notice.

Tyler Cohn is the communications coordinator for Athlete Ally.