Ed. Note: The following open letter was posted earlier today on usatoday.com
To college presidents, athletic directors, and coaches:
The deeply disturbing Penn State and Syracuse child sex abuse allegations are more than a cautionary note for college athletics–they are an urgent wake-up call. As President Obama has said, these allegations are cause for “soul-searching” in higher education.
As a starting point for that soul-searching, campus leaders should rigorously take stock of all their programs to ensure they first serve their core mission to foster a college education and meet the elemental obligation to protect students and children from abuse. The guiding principle here ought to be simple: No double standards. Players, coaches, and college administrators should be held to the same fundamental standards of sexual conduct as other students and faculty members.
I write not as a critic of college sports but as a great believer in their value. Few postsecondary pursuits likely do more to cultivate leadership and the character skills important to succeeding in the 21st century, including the ability to persist, defer gratification, take responsibility, and work in teams. Few activities do more to build a sense of community on campus. And when athletic programs have their priorities in order, there are few better vehicles for teaching invaluable life lessons than the playing field or court. Great coaches, just like great teachers, transform the lives of their students.
I recognize, too, that most college sports programs have their priorities in order, and that the scourge of child sex abuse is in no way unique to college sports. Yet the recent sex abuse allegations cannot be dismissed as lonely exceptions without a larger meaning.
Colleges and universities should systematically ensure that all student athletes—indeed, all students—are educated about the dangers and warning signs of sex abuse. Student-athletes, coaches, college administrators, and law enforcement officials should be familiar with procedures for reporting abuse. And the university should have clear standards in place for thoroughly investigating allegations of sex abuse, including the reporting of any sexual assault allegation to law enforcement authorities. Some precautionary measures, like restricting travel for under-aged ball boys, seem like little more than common sense.
Most importantly, all athletic programs and coaches—no matter how renowned—should be held to the same standards as other parts of the university. Every institution should commit to shaping an environment that deters abuse and leads to swift action when it is reported.
Counseling and support should be available to victims–not a gauntlet of interrogation and impugning of their motives. No university should make a student or child feel stigmatized or ashamed, nor should it impede the reporting of sex abuse. It’s time to end the code of silence that so often can hover over instances of child abuse.
The Clery Act, a federal law, requires all colleges and universities that receive federal aid to keep a public log of all crimes on and around campus, specifying the nature of the crime, the date, place, and time. Postsecondary institutions must also post their procedures for investigating and prosecuting sexual crimes.
The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into Penn State’s compliance with the Clery Act. I do not know what that investigation will conclude. But I do know that complying with federal law should be the bare minimum for which universities and college sports programs should strive. In the aftermath of these tragic allegations, university presidents, athletic directors, coaches, and other campus leaders should first return to their roots–to educate and protect.
Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.