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Penn State and Syracuse: The Missed Opportunities Pile Up

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The sex abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse have revealed multiple missed opportunities for people in positions of responsibility to do the right thing. Whether the charges against Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State football defensive coordinator, and Bernie Fine, former basketball assistant coach at Syracuse, are ever proven or not, many of their superiors are already guilty of misunderstanding events and responding poorly. At Penn State, the athletic director (Tim Curley) and senior vice president in charge of campus police (Gary Schultz) have both been indicted, charged with covering up the scandal. Joe Paterno, the head coach, was fired and now admits that "I wish I had done more." At Syracuse, coach Jim Boeheim first accused the accuser, charging him with trying to extract money from the university. Then, in his first press conference after Fine was fired, he claimed that his job was to run the basketball team, and his role did not go further than that. Finally, in a second press conference, he apologized for his earlier behavior, saying that "I reacted without thinking." "There's no question in my mind that the issue of abuse is the No. 1 [issue] that we should be concerned about in the community," Boeheim said.

Even those with no responsibility over the allegations of sexual abuse of young boys have missed opportunities. The initial reaction of many students at Penn State was to rally behind "JoePa." The initial reaction of Syracuse University basketball fans was to give Boeheim a standing ovation.

But even at the top, among presidents and boards of trustees, the initial reaction was, unfortunately, focused on crisis management and damage control: let the public know we don't condone the abuse of children, fire those tainted by the scandal, and encourage those that remain to take up the cause of stopping sexual abuse, as Boeheim has now done.

There is nothing wrong, of course, with top officials showing empathy for the alleged victims, removing those who they have strong evidence of having violated their ethical or legal obligations, or encouraging support for organizations that help abused children. But these two scandals are not only about sexual abuse. Boeheim is still wrong. The number one issue is not sexual abuse, as important as that issue is. The greatest missed opportunity, the elephant in the room, is the need to question the purpose of the university and university athletics.

These two great institutions were not founded to promote NCAA athletic programs. Even the NCAA knows this, since its Core Purpose states that the "educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount." Yet almost everyone involved, including the media (content as they are to report the surface events of athletics, charges, and firings), seems to consider this as a problem of a few bad apples. Major college athletics, with all the pressure it creates for winning, remains an unindicted co-conspirator. So are university administrations who have created or at least accept the bad barrel that rots the applies. They pay sports coaches millions -- multiples in many cases of what they pay their presidents -- and spend tens of millions more on athletic stadiums, practice facilities and programs.

It might have been refreshing for anyone in authority to have issued the following statement once the abuse charges began to fly: "We empathize with the victims of these alleged abuses and will not tolerate behavior in this university that either allows, condones, or ignores such abuse. More importantly, we will undertake a review of all our athletic programs to ensure that they support the university's purpose -- to educate the mind and morals of our students. We have a proud tradition of major collegiate sports competition, but it supplements and must never supplant the educational mission of this institution."

Unfortunately, the opportunity to say this has also been missed. And Penn State and Syracuse are not the only institutions missing it. What happened there could easily happen elsewhere, given the attention, money, and pressure to win in college sports.

A year from now, when the dust has settled, some people may have gone to jail and others will have moved on with their lives. Syracuse and Penn State students and fans will still be flocking to games. The media will have turned to other scandals, and the NCAA will still be ensuring that college sports has the prominent place it holds today in the minds and hearts of America. And we will have missed yet another opportunity.