This Fall Break, I’m checking another activity off my college bucket list: RV-ing to Happy Valley, Penn. for the Michigan-Pennsylvania State University football game. Though the trip promises to be quite the adventure, I can’t help but reflect on the condemning shadow that’s still over Penn State, following the Jerry Sandusky scandal and its publicized fallout.
Two years later, Penn State has made dramatic changes regarding child safety and has begun the long process of rebuilding its reputation. But on a national level, have we done enough to prevent these heinous crimes?
In 2011, allegations of serial sexual abuse by former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky rocked the world of college athletics. The abuse, followed by the institutional cover-up and negligence, led to the firing of head coach Joe Paterno and multiple school administrators. The investigation grabbed national headlines, tarnished the reputation of the university and raised serious questions about minors’ safety and institutional responsibility.
As the dust begins to settle, the landscape around Penn State and attention to minors’ safety across the nation has dramatically changed. Sandusky was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison. Administrators associated with the cover up are to stand trial for obstruction of justice next spring. Nineteen of the victims have reached settlements and received checks from the university. Penn State, which set aside $60 million to pay for the settlements, has removed statues, endured rioting and mourned for the prolonged suffering of the victims and the negligence which allowed it.
Perhaps the most promising effect of the scandal can be prominently seen here in Ann Arbor. During a forum discussion on minors’ safety on campus, Katie Miranto, the Michigan Athletic Camp administrator, raised serious concerns about a dramatic hole in the University’s Athletic Department’s background check program. She noted that one of the background checks used looks only at crimes committed in Michigan, meaning the same attention to detail might not be applied to out-of-state applicants, who account for 33 percent of the camp staff.
These concerns sparked immediate action and clarification by Michigan’s Athletic Department. David Ablauf, associate athletic director of media and public relations, outlined the additional elements of the vetting process, as well as ones it plans on implementing, while clarifying, “background checks of all kinds — whether handled personally, by coaches or through database reviews — are important, but they are just one way to keep kids safe.”
Since the forum, The Michigan Daily’s editorial board has adamantly voiced its criticism of the Athletic Department’s lack of initiative in these matters in addition to making claims that attention to marketing campaigns has replaced efforts to provide a safe environment for minors. Furthermore, Zach Helfand, one of the Daily’s sports editors, stated that “the problem is that the Athletic Department has chosen to fund a skywriting campaign rather than pay to protect vulnerable children.”
These assertions present a false dilemma by implying that the department actively sought to cut and direct funding and energy away from background checks in favor of frivolous marketing campaigns. But there’s no evidence that this is at all reality. By creating this connection, the Daily has presented an oversimplification by offering only a dramatic “either-or” situation, which the Department’s operational budget of $137.5 million simply does not support.
While the vetting processes isn’t and will never be perfect — Sandusky had no priors that would have been flagged by such a background check before he was hired at Penn State in 1969 — we can demand that the Athletic Department actively evaluate and improve how they are providing a safe environment for minors. However, claiming an outsourced background check, which represents one mere aspect of the entire vetting process, isn’t thorough enough does not prove negligence or greed on the part of the Athletic Department.
After the administrator of the camps raised these serious issues, the department reacted by recognizing and addressing them immediately and publicly. If the Daily’s concern is that the department is not doing its due diligence, it’s important to note it was an Athletic Department employee who pointed out this shortcoming in the first place. This is an example of a serious loophole being raised transparently and the department responding by taking immediate action to close it.
It’s naive to believe in the post-Sandusky era that an institution doesn’t realize the severity of abuse crimes and the scaring effect they can have on a university and community. Our institutions cannot become completely safe overnight, but this process of open dialogue and publicly looking to improve minors’ safety is our best weapon against these criminals. Miranto’s fears and the Department’s actions show we have begun to adapt and fight the terrifying world Sandusky and Penn State brought into the national spotlight.
Timothy Burroughs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.