Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ichiro: Farewell to a Master of the Craft

After 11 magnificent years Ichiro Suzuki asked to be traded from the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners obliged as only the Mariners can. They traded him to the New York Yankees on the very day they played the Yanks. Ichiro started against the team he had symbolized for a decade and got a hit: of course the Yankees won.

For ten years Ichiro has often been the only good thing about the Mariners. Cliff Lee passed through, and Felix Hernandez blossomed. But the team remained mired at the bottom of the league in offense and piled up ninety loss seasons, all the while Ichiro plied his game and the game of baseball with smooth well crafted excellence.

His batting skills had declined over the last three years as he passed into Bill James' statistical decline territory of the late thirties, and recently the Seattle media and baseball pundits have turned on him with a vengeance, forgetting the years of service, excellence and unflinching professionalism.They attacked his salary and aloofness and lowered production for the salary. I remembered once again why athletes must develop an internal composure and confidence because they cannot rely upon fans. I experienced this decline, but on a team bound to lose 90 plus games forever, he remained its best hitter. But I choose to recall his years of excellence. I believe he exemplifies a particular approach to sport and sport ethics. Ichiro Suzuki epitomized an athlete as a master of a craft.

At the heart of all professional achievement beats an ethic of craftsmanship. Each craft aims at a goal that requires mastery of small exquisite actions that are integrated into a whole addressing a challenge. Eye-hand coordination aligns with cognitive recognition and combines with deploying sensory and mental skills to remove an appendix, deliver a lecture, build a chair or hit a 2.7 inch ball breaking into you at 96 miles per hour.

I remember the quiet week Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners became the first person in history to have nine 200 hit seasons. He added this to eight gold gloves and single season record of 268 hits in 2004. His exemplary historical accomplishments illustrate the moral core of athletics craft mastery.

Each craft possess a vision of success and rules of skill that a person must learn to achieve that vision. The rules and skills are only the beginning. People can be indifferent or competent at what they do. Real mastery requires more. Mediocre and just so craftsmen approach work as a job without commitment to grow and perfect the skill. They go through the motions getting to acceptable outcomes much like a cook can slavishly follow a cookbook and get an eatable meal. Too many people of talent end up acceptable because they will not pay the price of mastery. Others possess enough talent to succeed but never achieve greatness because they will not combine the talent+skill+commitment needed.

Modern research suggests it takes up to 7000 hours of hard focused work to master a complex craft. More research suggests that what separates people with similar talent is the amount of reflective practice they devote to learning and improving their performance. This thoughtful discipline integrates mind, body and decision in a unique style of execution.

This uniqueness stamps their approach and product. Ichiro always arrives very early and undertakes a ritual of physical and mental preparations. His supple stretch before each at bat captures this. Yet no one would start out teaching youngsters to hit with his a tight controlled sweep that dominates the field and uses the plate and infield like a canvas. You can recognize the swing of a master as an expression of relentlessly practiced consistency. He has learned each year to adapt to pitchers as they adapt to him. Despite the singular focus on him, he improves. His fielding represents a triumph of anticipation, feline grace and speed. Even in his decline his arm still paralyzes running games. Master craftsmanship reaches consistency and maintains consistency by improvement and adaptation. This is what it takes to get 200 hits for nine seasons in a succession, a record that held for 108 years.

George Wills’ elegant book Men at Work explores baseball as a perfect illustration of the intelligence, talent, diligence and constant learning required of excellence in sport or life. Craft masters possess healthy egos that motivate the time and discipline. But they never let the ego override their respect for the integrity of craft. They are humble before their craft and that humility enables them to learn and grow. Their ego does not distract their practice, focus and preparation.

When Ichiro was asked about the records, he answered as a craft master.  “I always want to feel satisfaction, but when I accomplish a record, I only feel relief." Earlier he expressed a good lesson for how to relate to the task at hand. He spoke of the need to avoid setting records as goals because they made the got in the way of his potential. A true craftsman and superb athlete, he never stops growing and learning. The country of Japan has a designation of "national treasure" it bestows upon living embodiments of mastery of a craft. Ichiro deserved such a title for baseball.

In his comments upon leaving the Mariners, Ichiro mentioned that he wanted to make room for the young Mariners that the team needed to develop. He expressed hope that his new team will give him new challenges--trust me the Yankees will--but above all he expressed his profound gratitude to the Seattle Mariners fans. I can only reciprocate.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Penn State & the NCAA: Restorative Justice, not the Death Penalty

The NCAA Will Act on Penn State & Should Seek Restorative Justice not the Death Penalty
People are demanding the NCAA to act against Penn State for its moral horror show in the Sandusky affair. I think the NCAA will act but am not sure it should. But if it does, it should act to restore justice, not impose retribution.

The NCAA is a confederated membership nonprofit organization with complex bylaws that grant immense autonomy to campuses and conferences. It is not a state actor and schools have jealously limited its power.

The bylaws resolutely stick to issues around equal playing, sports governance, athlete welfare and amateurism. The bylaws define legal not moral requirements of membership. The academic institutions jealously guard local prerogatives and resist reforms that centralize power. Athletic directors and coaches along with the media hate NCAA enforcement. None of them want an ethics police.

Acting now against Penn State “for the good of intercollegiate sports” would involve an unprecedented assertion of power by the NCAA. The claim would be that Penn State as an institution and football team failed in their institutional control. Penn State failed but it is not clear it involved NCAA bylaws.

Here are the reasons for caution:
  1.  1t is not clear any major NCAA bylaws were actually violated. The NCAA has no morals clauses; it does have clear moral ideals in its governing documents. Most “morals” violations such as sexual harassment or substance abuse remain at campus level and violate campus rules and state law. The NCAA seldom gets involved as an ethics politice unless it involves institutional dereliction and student welfare. Penn State is not about student welfare.
  2.  Mark Emmert has pointed out the NCAA has no precedent, the actions are “unprecedented.” He has made clear the NCAA should not be bound by the past “normal” expectations. The NCAA issues thousands of punishments as regular administrative actions on minor violations such as practice or travel times violations. These rulings occur around complex rules to protect student athletes and ensure some fair play. Even major violations involve two separate issues.
    1. they entail a clear and proven major violation such as impermissible benefits or agent contact or illegal recruiting. None of these activities remotely relate to ignoring or covering up the abuse of children by a former coach.
    2.  the most serious infractions involve loss of institutional control and deliberate cover up. Penn State qualifies in spades. But it is not clear the leaders even worried whether these were NCAA violations. They were trying to protect their institution’s reputation, not hide from the NCAA.
  3.  NCAA infractions investigators are not equipped to examine criminal actions and must defer to criminal investigations. NCAA personnel have neither training nor writ in these areas.
  4.  The case involves hard issues of statute of limitations for most NCAA violations. The abuse probably began before 1977 (35 years ago) and Sandusky retired in 1999. He had a privileged Emeritus status for the last 13 years, but no formal employment relationship.
  5.   Mike McQueary, a graduate assistant, reported seeing Sandusky sexually assaulting a boy in the shower room in 2002. From that point the Head Coach and senior university administrators, not just athletic personnel, covered up for decade. While the Freeh report makes clear a cover-up occurred, most of the time no one even bothered to think about it. If the NCAA has a case it exists here in the cover-up and institutional failure.
“Hard cases make bad law” is a basic maxim of American judiciary action. This is a very hard case that could make very bad law.

If the infractions committee or NCAA President acted now, they would appropriate a range of control over over ranges of moral/legal behavior that lie beyond their past competence or mandate. I think they will act simply because the actions are so despicable even if beyond any legal writ. It looks like the actions were “enabled or at least not stopped” in Mark Emmert’s words

The NCAA will act. Paradoxically they will act for the same reasons that drove the cover-up to protect the legitimacy and credibility of the NCAA and out of moral outrage.

The NCAA lawyers will concoct justifications based upon good of the sport or generalized duties of ethics and integrity in athletics. This logic will expand the authority of the NCAA and set huge precedents to regulate new areas.

The NCAA will also act because people fear that that if they don't, no one else will. They cannot rely on Penn State.

This is a school whose idea of restitution is to paint out halos over Paterno’s head and redo their bathrooms!! They finally will take the statue down. Come on! Everyone who can be fired has been, and the Regents should resign and have started but what else do we expect. Sandusky has gone to jail and other will be tried. Penn State will not fall on its sword.

The senior administrators of Penn State and their coach failed to exercise moral integrity and act against immoral and illegal behavior. They worried more about their institution and careers than the victims. This is the crux of the NCAA case of not exercising institutional control over actions occurring by non-university employees that administrators missed and ignored when revealed.

These are real criminal and civil crimes and moral failures. But it is not clear they violate NCAA bylaws.

Let’s assume the NCAA will act with a newly developed warrant asserting new powers and authority based upon moral integrity of institutional systems. Let's assume they act through Presidential action from the Board and bypass the infractions committee. Now let us assume that the program does not have a history of violations or probation that would point to long-term lack of institutional control. Multiple probations also point to an inability or unwillingness to gain control of rogue coaches, rogue agents, rogue players or rogue boosters like. At Penn State no extant history of violations or institutional hostility manifests. However the NCAA acts it must do so in a way that achieves its moral ends but also avoids Penn State litigation that might challenge this extension of power.

NCAA President Mark Emmert point out this is unprecedented and NCAA precedent is not much help. I mean OK, telling a school you can’t go to a bowl game for three years or you lose 25% of your scholarships—these are serious NCAA penalties, yet they feel like a pea-shooters against a whale.
No bowl games? Fewer scholarships?  Versus 35 years of sexual abuse of children under the protective banner or Penn State or ten years of covert denial and cover-up with no remorse?

I know people are screaming for the death penalty, but to what end? The program gained no competitive advantage, violated no major rules, did not abuse student welfare, cheat on exams, not graduate students or play fast and loose with agents. It has no prior history. All the conditions under which the death penalty has been used do not comport. The death penalty would also open the NCAA ups to serious legal challenges which neither it nor Penn State want. 

I want to strongly support another approach that others have floated. Do not use the death penalty. Limit bowls or scholarship reduction if you want, but to act to connect to the moral nature of the crime.

Don’t focus upon retribution. The NCAA should aim for restorative justice.

Take the profits from football for the next five years, or take a high mandated percentage so that other sports will survive. Require Penn State to fund an independent national foundation dedicated to preventative education of child abuse. Put this money to good use. Create a real independent nonprofit foundation and have it dedicated to working with colleges and high school to provide strong education and support to stop this plague.

NCAA action will ultimately rest upon moral claims, not bylaw violations. The NCAA response should be informed by restorative justice, not retribution. Protect future victims from the depredations Penn State fostered.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Penn State: When Coaches are more Powerful than College Presidents

The Penn State scandal continues to unfold with the Freeh Report. The report basically confirms what everyone but true believers knew, Penn State leaders strongly pushed by Head Football Coach Joe Paterno ignored the heinous moral damage to young men done by one of the assistant coaches Jerry Sandusky. More importantly they dithered about the issue, ignored its moral evil and worried more about protecting the reputation of the university and their football program than ending the abuse of children that their own imprimatur made possible.

I have written about this before and most of the clamor at the moment replicates what has already been said. The question of what the NCAA can and should do will also unfold, but I want to address another issue that is not common but also not rare in intercollegiate sports, the role of Presidents in institutional control.

Intercollegiate athletic integrity depends upon Presidential control. The entire reform movement of the last twenty years and all the major increases in student welfare and academic progress has occurred because Presidents asserted control and grabbed it away from athletic directors and coaches. The entire process depends absolutely upon individual university presidents asserting strong control at their own campuses and ensuring both compliance with regulations but also that coaches abide by some reaonsable facsimile of commitment to students as well as athletes.

The Paterno case has reflected for years one of the major cracks in this approach. Under certain conditions coaches become far more powerful than the Presidents of the University. The coaches make more money, they have more visibility, they are treated as celebrity and in many ways they embody the reputation and status of the university. Universities have whole departments devoted to telling stories that prove how their coach embodies the best of the university's values. So we have the reputation machine behind Paterno. But Paterno's power was not alone.

It is now clear that Paterno's own efforts helped paralyze the efforts of Penn State senior administrators to address the issue.

Let's look at some other cases where several factors coalesce:
  • The coach has been very successful at winning games for a long period of time.
  • The coach has lived through several Presidents.
  • The coach has created not just immense support from fans but has cultivated strong relations with very powerful contributors and boosters.
  • The coach has become a symbol of the university and woven into its marketing and reputation.
  • This position means the coach is no longer accountable to anyone in the university hierarchy, only to winning and their own myth.

When these combine coaches amass immense independent power that often puts them beyond the power of the Presidents who feel trapped by boosters, contributors, media and even their boards of regents. Several other examples come to mind among them Bobby Bowden of Florida State,  Bobby Knight at Indiana, Rick Pitino at Louisville among others.

"When the season's over I'll let them know if I want to come back."79 year coach of the Florida State Seminoles Bobby Bowden informed the public who was boss two years ago. He was responding to the demand of the Jim Smith Head of the University's Board of Trustees that "Seminole Nation" had endured his failures "enough." Smith was a little more graphic, it's "sort of like you have to put your favorite dog down; you know its the right thing to do but you sure feel bad about it."

 Another member of the Board commented that she thought this was the business of the University President and Athletic Director--technically true but not likely in modern college athletics. The  University Presidents have largely lost the ability to determine celebrity and long term coach's fates. The Athletic Director and the Board of Trustees have more power but remain as paralyzed.  Just to clarify the Governor of Florida announced that he supported Bowden, considered him one of the greatest coaches of all time and wished him luck for the season. Joe Paterno, at that point another untouchable 82 year old football coach at Penn State, chimed in that Bowden should "decide what he wants to do."

When Rick Pitino decided to have sexual relations in a bar room, the President of Louisville slapped his wrist because the university depended upon its basketball team for whatever reputation it has. Bob Huggins at Cinncinnati ran through several Presidents who were helpless to stop his exploitation of student athletes and violation of rules. It took his own alcohol ruled self destruction to enable a President to get rid of him.

Jerry Tarkenian the basketball coach at UNLV put UNLV on the map. Its basketball team gained the school national presence and prime time visibility despite Tarkenian's blatant disregard for rules and graduating student athletes. At UNLV he got Chancellors fired who tried to fire him. Bobby Knight created an untouchable basketball dynasty at Indiana and the university tolerated and enabled two decades of vile and ruthless and boorish behavior from this paragon who helped cement Indiana's reputation. The phenonon is not common but so powerful that Myles Brand literally made his reputation for firing Bobby Knight as basketball coach at Indiana, but he faced outrage and demonstrations.

Hubris and success coupled with long tenure are ancient recipes for tyranny and tragedy. Men gain such prominence that others fear to remove them. As long as they win or do not do something morally horrendous, these coaches remain untouchable beyond the President's power. An iron triangle of boosters welded to coaches, welded to media welded to donors build unassailable positions that Presidents challenge at their peril.

So university Presidents tolerate or exonerate outlandish behavior like sex on bar tables, drunken driving, academic fraud and personal and public embarrassment. The University Presidents dither for fear of alienating donors, being being assaulted by the media or simply giving up huge marketing and media visibility of celebrity driven winning. The sad paradox of Paterno is that the President had been trying to get rid of him and could not.

The Greek tragedy of hubris and power ends predictably. Woody Hayes at Ohio State assaults a his own player on national TV. Arizona's great and untouchable coach Lute Olsen's  health, team and family life disintegrate while the University shuffled around trying to get him to step down with honor. Penn State has been trying to offer Joe Paterno an honorable way out for a decade, but he continued on impervious to blandishments and invulnerable with his booster, media and support. Now Penn State learns it has harbored moral evil and moral silence at its core values. 

Unable to protect accountability or dignity many Presidents wait for the final incident as in Knight, Hayes, or Huggin's implosions. Paterno represents the same sad pattern.

Often Presidents simply watch and wait for the team to  team lose  cohesion and winning, waiting for the boosters to finally tire and revolt. But by then it's too late. Presidents have ceded power over the program to boosters for the next choice. They set the precedent for Presidential impotence and booster primacy. The cycle will begin again.

I do not want to downplay the moral evil at Penn State, but I do want to highlight that the denouement fits a pattern of unaccountable coaches beyond the reach of presidents. 

A little Presidential courage could avoid the tragedy and support the integrity of athletics.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Being an Athlete not a Jock

College sports seasons loom on the horizon. Talk radio hosts count down days to football; no one talks about the seven other fall college sports which is sad but predictable. I think it is a good moment to remember why athletes can be considered students and why student athletes often struggle to grow into the role as a student athlete and move beyond their socially anointed role as jocks. I think one of the keys lies in the need to shift identity from being  jock to becoming a real athlete

Tim Manson is a trainer who helps mentor college student athletes. He speaks about the journey many  young athletes must traverse to make sense of their entry into the world of college sports and being a student athlete from the world of high school and elite club teams where being a jock displaces being an athlete.

"We talk about how you can either be a jock or an athlete. When a jock loses something like that, they've lost their identity They put all their hopes in the football bucket, and then when it's gone, they look in the mirror and don't know who they're looking at. An athlete, when he loses something, it doesn't define who he is. An athlete makes adjustments. An athlete overcomes."

These comments capture a fundamental challenge for college athletes but especially in football and basketball. Young football and basketball  along with others have clawed their way out to succeed in football or basketball. Many believe they will be pros.

These young student athletes have invested everything in their identity as "jocks." Their parents and followers and fans and recruiting gurus do the same. Everything of value in their life and their future hinges upon being a successful jock. Yet to grow up and succeed in life, these young men and women have to grow into a different identity beyond that bestowed by being successful at sports at the high school and club level. Their real futures lie elsewhere.

Jock is a social role that becomes a way of being in life. The word speaks for itself, an old English slang for male genitals. As a role, being a jock defines how you should relate to yourself and the world.

Jocks swagger and succeed by physical prowess. They disdain study and disdain most culture because to be a jock is to be worshipped for the success gained by sheer physical achievement in all its most infantile manifestations. Jocks don't need life, they have sport.

The world young successful jocks. Jocks get girls; jocks get scholarships; jocks get passed through grades; jocks get under the table rewards in high school. Over time the young men internalize this role. Almost anything of value in their life and all their self esteem grows from being a jock. So the young men internalize the worst caricature of themselves as physical specimens who can win, drink, get laid all due to their status as jocks. Most jocks disdain study and grades because these activities dominate other subcultures like nerds and beside, being a jock will get them to college if they wish.

Take away the jock, and the person collapses. 

Jock-hood defines a social role, when the role is gone, everything disappears. People who peak at 18 from physical success have no future; they have no friends; they have no reality.All their relations are mediated by their athletic status, take that away and the relationships melt away. Like the pixillated hero of Bruce Spingsteen's Glory Days, all they have are memories, they could have been contenders.

Athletes are different. Athletes are not jocks. 

This picture of a discus and a javelin thrower captures what it means to be an athlete. Athlete derives from the Greek  ideal of contest. Athletes are human beings who master skills through struggle, effort and thought. Discus and javelin are born of war skills as were most original Olympic sports. Both required intense practice to master a complex form and technology.

The beauty of line in the picture and Greek art emphasizes athletic endeavor as not just physical activity, but rather actions imbued with form, discipline and practice. In the Greek and Olympic tradition athletes combine qualities of spirit and character--self-discipline, intense focus, reflective practice with characteristics of the mind. They intellectually mastered the form of the activity. The practice of an athlete manifested the beauty of the form.

Successful athletes embody character and form in achievement. An athlete masters the form through knowledge, practice and self correction. The form emerges in the crucible of competition where individuals watch other athletes compete.Loss can teach as much as victory, sometimes even more because losing demands an emotional and intellectual challenge to get better.

This is why athletes are not jocks.

The social role of being a jock internalized by young competitors confers social status and rewards but limits whom they can become. As a role its worth depends upon external perks and validation, winning, praise, adoring fans and groupies. A jock embodies a wrong headed masculinity based upon sheer brute strength. Being a jock as a social status grants privileges and excuses failures. All it depends upon is visibility in sport carried over into social dominance in other domains.

Good athletes study their craft and game. Good athletes need to be learners, one of the very activities reject by jocks. 

Success grows from learned mastery or patterns and skills and integrating them into team play and surprise and uncertainty of competition.  This is really the challenge of college athletics (not sports) to help the young men who enter as jocks to grow into being athletes.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

One Short Sports: The Logic of Racing & Diving

In his classic "Lose Yourself" Eminem begins:

Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity
To seize everything you ever wanted-One moment
Would you capture it or just let it slip?

His song etches the challenge of the Olympic moment. Each Olympic moment presents this, just one shot. Each race, each game, each point accumulate but end in this one moment that Olympian athletes have fought their entire lives to achieve.

His song came to mind as I watched the Olympic trials especially the titanic races between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte which kept ending with .05 to .2 second differentials. I realized again how a certain set of sports give athletes only one shot with no room for error. 

I think back to the winter Olympic and the incredible performance of American skier Linsey Vonn collapsing, sobbing and  crying on her husband's shoulder after her gold medal run in the women's alpine Olympic. The scary intense no room for error run   reminded me of the song. 

She cried from joy, satisfaction, triumph and relief. On the same night I watched Shaun White simply soar at a different level than the rest of his competition in the snow board half pipe as he glided, slung, twisted and contorted his way to a stunning, dare I say it, awesome, performance winning the gold medal in the half pipe. White whooped and hollered and hugged. Later he played air guitar at the end of the national anthem on the podium. His whoops and hollers reflected jubilation and triumph and relief.

Why the relief? During the winter Olympics I realized several things about  sports. Many winter sports incur far more danger than your typical summer sports. I mean careening down bumpy slopes and flying off ledges at 100 kilometers an hour; luging around tracks in astronaut training speeds; turning, twisting and launching into the air all entail real risk of life and limb. Lindsey Vonn skied with a huge bruise on her thigh and had to overcome several major injuries since her last Olympics. Askel Svindel returned from a battered and broken body to win the men's ski gold, for as he put it in his blog, "ten seconds" to stand and know you had done it with your run. A lugger died.

These athletes bring a level of courage and pushing the edge that does not exist in most other sports because of the real physical danger that courts them at every second. They  are not encased in cars or kevlar, just them, their bodies, equipment and the elements. 

The summer sports generally do not bring a similar level of danger, but they still express the incredible pressure and naked end of pure competition. One wins, everyone else loses. Just like the winter Olympics many of the sports represent just one shot sports.

 "One shot" sports differ from many sports that offer theme and variations over and over again with ample opportunities in the flow of a game to overcome lapses and still win. Soccer, volleyball, baseball, basketball all unfold as continuous and repetitive plays during their allotted time with ebbs and flows, lots of second chances. But one shot sports present a different psychological and performance profile. Athletes have literally just one shot with no room for error.

These sports really provide just  one shot. Just one chance with the athlete or team alone, waiting, the bell sounds and the individual is off. It all rides on one ride, one run, dive, one row. All the races, diving, swimming, gymnastics, rowing play out with the same excruciating intensity. Much like the vault in gymnastics, an explosive instant second where years of preparation play out in seconds alone. The point of the game here: everything is on the line just once.One error, one nanosecond hesitation, one false move and the dream disappears.

All the athletes who arrive at the Olympics stand for the best of the best and the best their country can offer in this activity. They seek to embody the Greek ideal of excellence in form, strength and performance. Leave aside the commercialism, the crassness, the sponsorships, the bloated nationalism and amid the noise and carnival, just as existed in the original Olympics, it comes down to the one athlete, one woman, one man, waiting on the starting block, intense, focus, coiled embodying years of training and work. It is the moment Olympic cameras love to catch for good reason, just as they zoom in on the ecstasy of victory and of loss.

I really admire the character and moral intensity of athletes in one shot sports. The athlete has to bring all his or her  training and life long commitment to a pinpoint of focus. They need mental and physical discipline to overcome  past failures and past successes. They must be totally present in that one moment, as Eminem advised, they need to "lose yourself." 

They need flawless visioning of the action and the ability to execute and adapt to any changed conditions at the same time. Above all they must find ways to not let the pressure and adrenaline and cortisol rushes of having everything depend upon this one chance and to being it home.

At the end of a one shot run, every Olympic athlete can mimic Vonn's screams or White's hollers; joy, triumph and release and relief. They earned them all.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Sandusky Verdict and the Limits of Team Culture

The guilty verdict on Jerry Sandusky for 45 counts of child abuse confirms what we all knew. It also confirms Sandusky’s invincible denial and rationalizations that matches the patterns of most abusers. But Sandusky’s now legally established guilt only reinforces the institutional moral lessons about how dangerous team culture can be to moral integrity.

High achievement in professional fields including sports usually requires successful teams. Sports teams exemplify this reality but it lives in any team at any level of public or private sector. It ranges from the immensity of the Manhattan Project to snow removal. Yet, as Sandusky’s case shows, the dynamics of high achieving teams can lead teams to deny, tolerate or hide immense moral evil in the name of the team.

First, every team produces imbedded authority. At the simplest level members internalize values and commitments to each other. This commitment to each other reinforces and circles back on a commitment to achieve a common purpose. Team members self-censor and do not violate team norms.

Second, internalizing norms proceeds hand in hand with deferring to authority and leaders. Successful sports teams understand that execution depends upon deference to coaches, who recruit team members, socialize them and can cut them for not meeting expectations. In college and high school, the power of coaches to determine the moral and behavioral expectations of players is immense. This is reinforced by the player’s commitments to a common goal.

Teams commit to a mission. This does not require committing to each other, but grows into this on the field and practice. Goal commitment obliges players to get along in practice, the locker room and on the field.
Teammates learn as a matter of course to “live with” the idiosyncrasies and even grossness of other players or coaches. Everyone has idiosyncrasies from the way their sweat smells or how they fart to their behavior off field or dating habits. Players and teammates school themselves to get along with this. They may make jokes about it, but they stuff it for the mission of winning.

These differences can be obvious like race, ethnicity or geography or very personal. It might involve player’s life off field and how they treat partners or their gender preferences. Fellow players will tolerate or simply ignore differences and problems with players who may be jerks or violent or assholes as long as it does not enter the locker room or impact performance. Teammates shrug, “it’s just Manny being Manny,” but they often will not socialize with the idiots.

This goes doubly for coaches and authority figures. The coaches may scream, yell and even abuse players, but they possess huge authority and often grudging respect if they “know their shit.” 

School or club coaches often turn teams into almost family units with care and attention lavished on their players. In college many players were recruited and courted by a coach as well as and developed by a coach.  Even then, on the road players can see coaches misbehaving sometimes, either drinking, womanizing or violating team norms. They may dislike it and resent it, but they will put up with it and keep it silent for the team.

In these tight knit groups, peer authority and identity can be so strong that people can literally miss what they see or reinterpret what they see. Social psychology research is replete with cases where individuals will stifle their own moral initiative under peer pressure or literally realign what they saw to bring into line their perceptions with their beliefs.

This is how Sandusky could get away with his abuse for so long. His actions may seem weird and strange, but if it happens enough, it normalizes his deviance. So bringing along teenage “guests” to practice or road games where the “guests” sleep in his room becomes just “Jerry being Jerry.”

It took a lot of moral courage, maybe all he had, for Mike McQueary to acknowledge to himself that he really did see the coach who recruited and trained him and worked with him raping a young boy in the shower. I imagine his whole body and mind screamed to deny or reinterpret whatever he saw.

But McQueary did see it and fought the temptation to ignore or reinterpret it. He reported it to his revered coach, Joe Paterno, a man who could have ended it all in a microsecond if he had listened or acted. Mike McQueary may not have done enough but he did what most team members cannot do. He reported evil; he snitched; he had the level of self-honesty to see the truth. His testimony at the trial provided independent adult corroboration for the sordid remembrances of the young men who had to dredge up painful and conflicted memories of Sandusky’s embraces.

Penn State is desperately working to eliminate the scandal and rewrite history. The stadium will not be renamed after Paterno, not for lack of trying. The school is tenderly approaching the victims about settlements. They painted out Jerry Sandusky from the famous mural with Penn State players and coaches, rather like 1984. Now they have replaced the blanked out portrait of Sandusky with a leader in the fight against child abuse.

But rewriting history will not be enough here. If new CNN reports are accurate, then the athletic Director Mike Curry and the Vice President Gary Shultz actually planned to report the incident as required by law. But a discussion with Paterno changed the Vice President’s mind. According to CNN, his email stated, he decided to talk to Sandusky and limit his access. "This is a more humane and upfront way to handle this.” They essentially did nothing. Sandusky continued to use Penn State facilities, continued to be free to abuse and continued to use his Penn State status to legitimize his cultivation and grooming of young victims.

One final point, most teams develop a no snitch rule. Not snitching lies deep in any committed group identity; it exists as strongly as “I’ve got your back.” No snitching makes perfect sense because team members do not want to reveal the strategies, skills or training that give a team its identity and strengths. Not snitching prevents opponents from knowing a team’s weaknesses or fissures.

I have watched investigations of teams where a fight had occurred at a party and thirty team members saw the fight. Some tried to break it up, others urged people on, but under investigation no one saw it and no one would reveal a word about not only about who started it but also who fought, period. A wall of denial faced team and department leaders trying to figure it out.  Teams stand together even to hide the bad.

Combine no snitch with the denial and culture of living with the gross stuff, and Sandusky’s actions reveal writ large the horrible mutations that the good of teams can produce.