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Penn State Athletics' Plans for Change Are Good, But Timing Makes Them Feel Hollow

by on July 06, 2020 2:10 PM

Penn State Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour announced on Monday afternoon a series of steps to improve the communication between student athletes and the administration as it pertains to race, culture and climate within their respective programs.

The catalyst was the Monday morning story by The Undefeated that details an instance in which men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers told former Penn State guard Rasir Bolton: “I want to be a stress reliever for you. You can talk to me about anything. I need to get some of this pressure off you. I want to loosen the noose that’s around your neck.”

The story then goes on in further detail to explain the fallout and response following the conversation.

Chambers use of the word "noose" was reportedly the starting point for Bolton’s eventual transfer from the program at the end of the 2019 season. Current and former players have since come to Chambers’ defense.

Chambers apologized on Monday. Barbour's statement acknowledged that Chambers "deeply regrets the words he chose" and is "actively working to learn and grow." At the time Chambers was not reportedly told to take part in any diversity or cultural training, meanwhile Bolton was reportedly directed towards Penn State's sports psychologist.

“Our black community of students, faculty, and staff must have the opportunity to feel safe, respected, and welcome at Penn State, and clearly our past actions and words have not always contributed positively to that goal,” Barbour wrote. “It is our obligation to embrace all in our community regardless of differences — the color of their skin, their ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or gender should not matter.

“Our community of student-athletes, staff and coaches is stronger because of the diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives they all bring to our competitive venues and classrooms. As leaders, our coaches must model the values of our institution and I remain steadfast in continuing to strengthen the culture of acceptance within our Penn State Athletics Department.”

Barbour’s plan released Monday is written as follows, edited for length but with the main points still in place. 

  • We will listen by conducting an annual Intercollegiate Athletics climate survey that will offer an opportunity for the Intercollegiate Athletics community to provide feedback on the culture, climate and experience as it pertains to diversity, inclusion, respect and acceptance. 
  • We will take action by establishing an Intercollegiate Athletics Response Team to more effectively address issues of concerns affecting the culture, climate and experience of the Intercollegiate Athletics community. The Response Team will partner with appropriate ICA leadership to engage in broader university discussions around developing respectful interactions and communications for resolution.

  • We will support growth and change by providing educational opportunities for the Intercollegiate Athletics community to engage in thoughtful and impactful discussions, reflections and actions around pertinent and current issues and/or events that effect culture, climate and experience through the use of best available education and resources.

  • We will collaborate with our Student-Athlete Advisory Board’s Welfare Committee whose responsibilities are to work with the Intercollegiate Athletics community to enhance the overall quality of life and personal growth and development of student-athletes through promoting a welcoming and inclusive environment for all student-athletes, and providing input on programming and support services consistent with the core values of the University and Intercollegiate Athletics. 
  • We will contribute to the efforts of President Barron’s Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety in meaningful ways to see change in our community—and the world for that matter. 

At face value these are worthwhile causes and initiatives. The relationship between a student-athlete and their school is key to the success of both parties. A furthered emphasis on the quality of culture, respect and inclusion are important things to reinforce and crucial to longterm sustainability.

Independent of Chambers' own actions and the severity of the mistake, it's undeniable that Penn State — by its own admission — knew that this event took place. Effectively, Monday's news was water under the bridge for Penn State athletics up until it was about to become news to you. Only in recent weeks did Penn State find out that The Undefeated was working on the story, and subsequently Monday's response was much more the result of something becoming public than it was the coincidental timing of a previously scheduled policy change.

Given the chance to do anything, Penn State opted for little until the moment it had to do something.

While not a race issue, in 2016 a handful of former women's hockey players stepped forward to speak about alleged emotional abuse by then coach Josh Brandwene. Penn State reportedly submitted the issue for review, but Brandwene retired a year later on his own terms, was later hired elsewhere and remains in coaching.

There was no public and official change in policy then, a system that reportedly left those players feeling unheard.

In 2018, two swimming and diving coaches were similarly investigated by Penn State for the same kind of emotional abuse.

"We are driven first and foremost by the welfare of our student-athletes, and always consider thoroughly each and every issue brought to our attention," a Penn State statement read at the time. "Every day, the (Intercollegiate Athletics) staff is dedicated to providing the resources necessary to create conditions for success to balance the rigors of high expectations in the classroom and in competition.

Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics has well-established, confidential processes in place to follow-up on direct and indirect feedback from student-athletes and others closely connected to our programs."

In 2017 a similar case took place with the women's gymnastics team. Former head coach Jeff Thompson later filed a lawsuit against the university.

There can be little doubt that Penn State has always cared about its student-athletes. To assume that a handful of incidents are indicative of a wider culture issue would be disingenuous. However, Penn State's response on Monday was the reaction to an event long known to the department and measures taken effectively to act as much as damage control as anticipated policy upgrades. In turn well-intended and well-meaning policy feels a hollow shell of meaningful progress, especially as the policy changes have yet to be posted on Penn State Athletics' own website, only to be found on Twitter. 

And a subsequent questions arises: Would this have ever happened had the story never been written?

One might say better late than never and that change often comes about in the wake of mistakes, but if there was ever a place to have learned the lessons and values of being proactive, it's Penn State.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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