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.

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