It's a Guy Thing at Penn State, and That's a Problem

November 21, 2011

With the horrifying facts and allegations surrounding the Penn State football program still unfolding, I took it as a given that most people would share my moral outrage and, particularly, my shock that the athletic department did nothing to stop the victimization that reportedly took place within its facilities, and nothing to ensure that the man accused of such crimes be dealt with through the criminal-justice system. I took it as a given that these reactions were unqualified.

I did not see this moral certainty as having anything to do with the fact that I am a woman until I attended an event recently and had the opportunity to discuss the Penn State events with a group of acquaintances. I learned that while nearly everyone is outraged by what happened at Penn State, not everyone condemns those in the athletic program who did nothing to help the alleged victim of Jerry Sandusky's "horseplay," and who did nothing to ensure that the justice system would sort out whether Sandusky's "touching" and "showering" with young boys amount to crimes.

In fact, what I learned from those who expressed an interest in helping me understand the supposed moral complexity of the situation was that, as a woman, I could not fully understand the pressure Penn State administrators were under, or the conditioning that goes on in a big-time college athletic program to keep secrets and respect the authority of the coach. And, of course, as a woman I could never understand the elitism that is a part of a legendary football program, so that when Penn State administrators were presented with the awful allegations, there were, according to those with whom I spoke, many ethical issues to consider, and many reasons why the administrators would keep quiet and conduct their own "investigation." But consider this, as well: Not a single top decision maker in the university's powerful athletic hierarchy is a woman.

The absence of women in power in college athletics is a fact of life within our education-based sports programs. It did cause me to imagine, however, whether such a fact is significant. That is, might things have been done differently at Penn State if women, or at least a woman, had a seat at the table when word of Jerry Sandusky's unspeakable abuse of a young boy was reported? Could a person not conditioned in the culture of traditional male-dominated sports hierarchies have made different calculations about how to react and what to report? I believe the answer to those questions is an emphatic yes.

Of course, it is always tricky to imagine how events might have unfolded with one change, and trickier still to do so by simply changing the gender of at least one key player. Indeed, the antidiscrimination laws that underlie our notions of gender equality discourage such reimaginings by mandating that women be treated exactly like men, because gender, it is said, is in nearly every case not a legally adequate basis to distinguish, say, candidates for a job. To take advantage of antidiscrimination laws, then, women are used to advocating for themselves on the basis that they are just like men.

But the Penn State scandal and the moral gymnastics that some people have gone through to explain the lack of immediate concern for the victim, as well as the half-hearted efforts to respond to the situation itself as a product of "conditioning" in the male sports hierarchy, call attention to the likelihood that women in such situations do not behave at all like men. They do not hold positions of power in the "brotherhood" of big-time college sports. If they did, it would no longer be a brotherhood.

Because women are more likely than men to have been victims of sexual harassment and violence, women in leadership positions in the Penn State athletic department might have operated from the framework of responding and remedying the criminal acts of abuse that were apparent, instead of attempting to preserve a facade of virtue. The appointment of a female coach, as Penn State knows well, is no panacea, but the incorporation of more women into positions of leadership could only have benefited the institution, and not only in this case.

Because of the ways in which many women experience motherhood, a woman in the Penn State athletic department might have more immediately and viscerally viewed the defenseless boy as a victim who had to be helped, and Jerry Sandusky as the criminal that he is now alleged to be.

And because of the myriad other ways in which women experience the world differently from men, a different voice, one not "conditioned" to the traditional norms of college sports, hearing the accounts of what happened in the football facility's showers, might have made a profound difference.

It is difficult to know by specific comparison, of course, because only about 8 percent of athletic directors in Division I are female, and women hold about 30 percent of all athletic administrative positions. Female head coaches for men's teams are few, and far less than half of all coaches of women's teams are women. Given this, it is well worth considering that having women fully participate in the leadership of college athletics could make a difference in situations like that faced by Penn State, and worth acknowledging that more must be done to ensure that women become a meaningful part of the leadership of college sports.

At heart, the Penn State story shows why representation of women in athletic programs is not just about statistics or abstract notions of "equality." A different voice, shaped by different gender experiences, might have seen the situation not from the position of a "brotherhood" attempting to preserve the power and image and revenue that were propping up Penn State's football franchise, but instead by recognizing the gravity of the victimization that was taking place.

We will never know if these what-ifs would have mattered. But as the tragic story at Penn State continues to unfold, and other scandals in college athletics permeate our discussions of the role of sports in our educational institutions, college presidents and boards of trustees would do well to consider ways to ensure greater representation of women in leadership positions in their sports programs. They would be wise, as well, to consider how women could contribute to shaping a model for sports that does not simply serve the bottom line, but also serves our fundamental notions of morality, justice, and what college sports should­—and should not—represent.

Dionne Koller is an associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and director of its Center for Sport and the Law.