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Parenthood Plus: August 30, 2012

Parents, Student Athletes And The Penn State Scandal

Bob, my younger brother, was a die-hard Penn State football fan going back to the early 1960s. In later years he became a college coach and athletic director. Presently, he is Chair of the Sports Studies Department at Guilford College. He has written and researched extensively on maximizing the educational value of sports participation for youths, middle and high school, and college athletes. I thought there was no one better to ask about the Penn State mess and what lessons parents could take from it? Here is what he told me:

“For the past few months, we have been inundated with news about what is now commonly known as the ‘Penn State Scandal.’ Although the focus has been on the horrific acts of Jerry Sandusky and decrying the actions – or lack thereof – of Penn State administrators and others, it may be helpful to consider what the parents of young athletes can learn from this tragic affair.

“Many parents have paused and asked themselves, ‘What do I really know about the people coaching my children?’ First, the overwhelming majority of youth and high school coaches are solid citizens who have the best interests of your child in mind. But it would be naïve to think that there are not exceptions. Many states have laws requiring youth sport organizations and public schools to run background checks on coaches. Whether or not this is the case for your community, you can speak to the appropriate authorities about conducting these checks and implementing training programs that address how coaches can help young athletes to have a positive and safe experience.

“Parents need to understand that it is the coach’s job to manage the team and, for the most part, you should not interfere. However, you should be aware of the kind of experience that your child is having and you should feel free to ask questions. We sometimes tend to assign positive personal characteristics to coaches, whether deserved or not. This is particularly so in the case of winning programs; even at youth, and middle and high school levels. But winning championships doesn’t necessarily make someone a good person or role model. And, there is no question that it is difficult to challenge the coach who is competitively successful and has strong support from team parents and in the community. With unconditional support, less sensitive coaches can feel empowered to do as they please, especially if they are oblivious to how youngsters might be adversely impacted by their actions.

“Finally, you should strive to help your children keep sports in perspective. This starts with you, as a parent, doing the same.

“An appropriate level of perspective doesn’t mean that your child should not be competitive or do his or her best to excel on the field or court, or should not show respect for coaches and teammates. It does mean that when faced with a coach who behaves inappropriately or a teammate who bullies other children, your child should be encouraged to share what is going on, as opposed to subscribing to the idea that a good team member never questions a coach’s authority, even if it is used to exploit or harm others.

“The great majority of coaches care deeply about the long-term development of the children under their supervision, but parents of young athletes are wise to bear in mind an adage that was lost on a number of people involved in the Penn State tragedy: ‘Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’”