Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Sandusky effect

This past weekend, the small world of American fencing was rocked by the news that Penn State University had fired Emmanuil Kaidanov, longtime coach of the school’s exceptionally successful team. Coach Kaidanov led the team to 12 NCAA championships over 31 years and a cumulative win record of 832-89, as the Centre Daily Times notes.

Penn State declined to comment on the reason for the firing, calling it a “confidential personnel matter.” The school apparently did not even announce the termination as such, merely confirming it after Kaidanov’s name was removed from the team website and rumors began to fly.

So what the heck happened? According to this letter, authored by PSU and fencing team alum Chris Balestracci and dated Monday, Kaidanov was let go because of a "heated discussion":

A situation occurred back in February, in which a staff assistant anonymously reported the possible possession of an illegal substance by a member of the Varsity Fencing Team. The accused student-athlete from the Varsity Fencing Team disproved ALL allegations by VOLUNTARILY undergoing immediate drug testing. The results of this drug test were completely NEGATIVE!
Subsequent to this, Coach Kaidanov had a rather heated discussion with the staff assistant stating that he believed that she should have reported the incident to him first and, as head fencing coach, he should have been the one to report the allegation in question, which proved to be unfounded. No name calling, threats, or intimidation of any kind were made. No action was even recommended by Coach Kaidanov against the staff assistant, nor was any retaliation taken against this staff assistant by Coach Kaidanov directly or even indirectly; he only had this one discussion with this staff assistant and did not even know that the phone call of the report of suspicious activity was anonymous.
The University’s decision was – As per Policy AD67 Disclosure of Wrongful Conduct and Protection From Retaliation states: Any member of the University who retaliates against any individual in violation of this policy will be subject to disciplinary sanctions, which may range from a disciplinary warning to termination or expulsion from the University.

If anything like the above is true – and it sounds plausible – it appears Kaidanov overreacted somewhat to an instance of perceived insubordination, and Penn State grossly overreacted to that by firing him.

I don’t think anyone can avoid seeing the long shadow of Jerry Sandusky here. It’s well-known that assistant coach Mike McQueary reported one of Sandusky’s alleged rapes to Joe Paterno in 2002, and that the incident was subsequently buried and forgotten in a flurry of bureaucratic buck-passing. It’s not unreasonable that university officials would get a little nervous at the spectacle of another head coach insisting that he, and only he, had the right to pass on allegations of criminal misconduct within his sports program.

But if Penn State swatted a fly with a hammer here, surely the people who gleefully piled their notions of collective guilt on the university share the blame. Sandusky’s crimes were heinous: he deserved severe punishment, as did those who aided and abetted him by turning a blind eye. Throw the book at them. But there was a need to be judicious and proportional. The majority of people in the Penn State athletic community, and in the university as a whole, had nothing to do with the matter. Those folks didn’t deserve punishment.

But they sure got it. After the Sandusky verdict, the NCAA lashed out with the institutional equivalent of saturation bombing: a $60 million fine (even in the world of college sports, that’s real money), 112 wins vacated, a four year bowl ban, etc. etc. Those sanctions weren’t authorized under a widely recognized and pre-existing judicial process: they were made up on the fly, and imposed under questionable legal authority. Coming from the NCAA – an organization hardly known for its secure grasp on moral high ground – they looked vindictive and opportunistic.

Right now, Penn State is shellshocked. The environment in which it operates has become dangerously unpredictable. It can’t afford even the hint of a fresh scandal, so it is jumping at loud noises and reacting to minor errors of judgment as if they were Class A felonies. That isn’t healthy and it isn’t right.

This, in a nutshell, is why power relationships need to be mediated by systems of regulations – aka the rule of law. As the NCAA is to Penn State, so is Penn State to Kaidanov and Kaidanov to his unnamed female assistant. People within organizations, and the organizations themselves, deserve due process. When you do something wrong, your punishment should not be “a high-handed, unaccountable authority gets to do whatever it wants.” That’s what tyranny looks like.

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