First Penn State. Now Syracuse. Concerned that allegations of child sex abuse in two big college sports programs could trigger more cases around the country, universities are urging employees to reread their school’s reporting policies, while more closely scrutinizing the people who work in their athletic departments.
Those reminders were circulating even as news of the scandals kept unfolding.
On Friday, the NCAA notified Penn State it would investigate the school for lack of institutional control resulting from the child sex abuse allegations against Joe Paterno’s former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. The evening before, Syracuse placed basketball coach Jim Boeheim’s top assistant, Bernie Fine, on leave after old allegations resurfaced that he molested two former ballboys. Sandusky and Fine each have denied the accusations against them.
In his letter to Penn State, NCAA president Mark Emmert restated a message that schools have been receiving simply by watching the news.
"It is critical that each campus and the NCAA as an Association re-examine how we constrain or encourage behaviors that lift up young people rather than making them victims," Emmert wrote.
Earlier this week at Michigan, president Mary Sue Coleman wrote an open letter to the university community reminding people to call 911 or the police department if they see a crime in progress. "This is a chance to remind one another that a community’s values are lived out in the actions of each of us as individuals," she wrote.
At St. John’s, athletic director Chris Monasch said the incidents offered a good opportunity to emphasize to staffers "that if there is an issue that’s inappropriate you have to deal with it immediately."
"A cover-up only makes it more severe," Monasch said. "Certainly, we do background checks on the people we hire for summer camps and those types of things. We’re trying to take precautions, but I don’t know how you can prepare for some of those things."
At North Carolina State, athletic director Debbie Yow asks athletes to anonymously complete a thorough survey that includes a question asking if an athletic staff member ever engaged in inappropriate contact.
"I think in this case it was something that was so new, a new type of allegation," Yow said. "You’re used to someone saying players are gambling or there’s alcohol abuse or there was a fight in the parking deck or any number of things like that — an NCAA violation, extra benefits. The list is very long that we know about and we try to protect against. This was a new type of issue I don’t believe that was on the radar of athletics administrators."
John Burness, the former longtime vice president of public affairs at Duke, said there could be a "safety in numbers," element for victims who keep details of their abuse quiet, but suddenly see a chance to seek justice.
"I’m not surprised, nor would I be surprised, if we saw people coming forward now to make allegations," Burness said. "Because it could be more comfortable to do so. That shouldn’t be discouraged. It should be encouraged. At the same time, we have to realize that every allegation is not necessarily true."
At a couple of smaller schools where sports aren’t as big a focus, leaders nevertheless used the latest episodes to put a sharper point on their reporting policies.
"We all need an immediate reality check," Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president R. Albert Mohler Jr., wrote in a letter first reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Presidents and chancellors aren’t the only ones getting involved. Earlier this week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal issued an executive order requiring university employees to report sexual abuse or neglect to authorities within 24 hours of witnessing the offense.
New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland are among the other states where lawmakers are considering toughening their reporting standards.
Both Burness and Terry Hartle, senior vice-president at the American Council on Education, compared reaction to these scandals to what happened after the massacre at Virginia Tech, when schools went back and analyzed their preparedness for a major emergency.
"I do not see a crisis coming up," Hartle said. "I do think this will be an experience that will force all colleges and universities to reevaluate their policies and procedures with reporting and dealing with sexual misconduct."
A handful of athletic directors interviewed by The Associated Press said they have brought up the subject with their departments.
In his regular Sunday evening email to athletes, coaches and staff, Minnesota AD Joel Maturi asked everyone to pray for the victims but also reminded them of their responsibility to report any illegal, abusive or improper behavior they become aware of.
At Kentucky, spokesman DeWayne Peevy said: "We take a long look at everything as a staff, re-evaluate what we’re doing."
"Some things you can’t necessarily prevent, but you do everything you can to make sure there are no red flags and nothing shows up unexpectedly," Peevy said.
Same message at Utah, where athletic director Chris Hill reminded employees it’s their responsibility to report any potential crime to the police. At Arizona, athletic director Greg Byrne’s letter to staff included this straightforward advice: "The message is simple — call the police — call 911 — if you witness criminal activity or if you believe you or anyone else is in danger." Wake Forest is holding its annual administrative retreat soon, and the topic of how it might handle such a problem is expected to come up.
Although running background checks on employees is standard procedure at almost every university, Burness said the news of the past weeks likely will send athletic directors back to the personnel files.
"That’s a proper step for an institution to take," he said. "If you’re aware of prior cases, you should probably brush up on what happened, what was found, what wasn’t found and who the incident was reported to."