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Roger M. Groves, Professor of Law, Florida Coastal School of Law
Published: 10 November 2011

Former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky has been charged with sexually assaulting eight boys over a 15 year period. Some of those years were while he was a well-established, highly regarded assistant coach under the venerable Joe Paterno. Caught in the web are two high level Penn State administrators, who have found the exit sign and face difficult legal charges for failing to report to police the alleged Sandusky's actions and then lying to a grand jury as part of a cover up. Paterno is gone too, as is Penn State President Graham Spanier.

Sandusky's attorney denies these allegations. So do the indicted administrators. Sandusky may be innocent and I will not presume him guilty now. If, however, the allegations are true, it is tragic for those victims and embarrassing for the university. But the big picture implications are far greater. It should force us to think about the vulnerability of 440,000 student athletes when under the tutelage and quasi-custodial care of coaches.

One issue that comes to mind is this: Shouldn't the teenagers recruited and wooed by the school—and those teenagers' parents—receive a report from the school confirming the physical and mental health of the coaches before they decide whether to commit the four most important years of the teenager's life to the school? And shouldn't the teenagers and parents receive an assurance that the university has a system of monitoring the coaches that they employ and send as agents on their behalf? I think so.  

Maybe such a report would not have prevented the first despicable act, if it happened. But if there was an institutional monitoring plan as serious as that which schools use to monitor tuition payments, there would not be seven more acts to investigate. If it is true that a graduate assistant told Paterno he actually saw Sandusky sexually assault a 10-year-old boy in the shower while Sandusky was still coaching at Penn State, and if it is true that Sandusky was still allowed access to Penn State showers after his retirement several years later, that means there is a gap in the monitoring and reporting system. During part of this time, unsuspecting young men were being recruited—by Sandusky—to play defense at Penn State. When were they to be told about the mental health of the recruiter? Not at all, I suspect. Contemplate the potential for abuse among the 18,000 teams that compete for NCAA championships among various sports. It's a scary thought.

And the issue is not confined to mental transgressions that could lead to sexual crimes. The recruited teenagers and parents are also without knowledge of the physical capabilities or challenges of the coaches who recruit them.  

Minnesota's first-year head coach Jerry Kill had a seizure on the sidelines this year during the second game of a long 12-game season.  Over the past few weeks, Kill has discouraged further discussion of his seizures, calling it a distraction for his team. This is Kill's first season with the Gofers, but he had seizures in 2001, 2005 and 2006 while coaching at Southern Illinois. He admitted on ESPN U that he's had 16 seizures over his adult years. He recently signed a seven-year extension to his existing contract.

During this college football season, former Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden admitted he had past bouts with prostate cancer. That is a difficult and courageous disclosure, but the announcement came four years after discovery. So he knew he had a life-threatening illness while he was still in the position to recruit players to commit their college careers to his school.  

We emphasize, as we should, that we want what is best for these coaches with physical ailments. They are under a type of pressure that I never experienced and cannot fully appreciate. They float their work product for analysis before hundreds of thousands of half-crazed stadium critics every week. The media follows their every move. And these coaches in the end must depend on those teenagers for their very job. For that they have my enduring respect and sympathy. Most likely they have more stress heaped on them than they deserve and so too are potential health issues.

But is it a high enough priority among the universities to equip the students and parents with qualitative information about a coach's fitness, either mental or physical, so they can make an informed decision about whether to attend that university? No one seems to raise the issue. Perhaps that is because those with a microphone are more concerned about the institutions than they are about the people who play for them. 

Teenage student athletes and their parents should have access to high quality information about the coaches who become surrogate parents or at least stewards from their remainder of their adolescence into manhood and trustees for their career aspirations. The NCAA should take a fraction of their three-quarters of a billion dollars they receive annually and develop a fitness certification or at least some standard for institutional testing, monitoring and reporting of coaches, and disclosure to the recruited teenagers and parents. Parents should know if the coach had a heart attack last year, or prostate cancer in the recent past, the diagnosis, and if there are any sexual assaults or other criminal conduct in the past.

Between the NCAA, the university and the dozens of athletic conferences, there is more than enough bureaucratic infrastructure to establish uniform rules of testing, monitoring, reporting and disclosure. If existing statutes need to be amended to create a balance between privacy rights of the coach and the right to know of players and parents, we can make it happen. But until we face the issue, we put close to a half million student athletes at risk. We often advocate greater transparency. Here is an opportunity to act on it.

Roger M. Groves is a Professor of Law at Florida Coastal School of Law, teaching business and sports courses and director of The Center for Sports and Social Entrepreneurship. Visit Roger at http://center4players.com/ and follow him at [email protected]

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