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Case Study: Penn State's Sandusky Scandal (By Traci Nigg)

Case Study: Penn State’s Sandusky Scandal


Our readers have now heard both sides of the argument pertaining to Joe Paterno’s role in the Sandusky scandal. What we as a society and sports fans cannot do is live in this mentality of blame and “what if.” What if Joe Paterno had done more? What if Sandusky had been caught sooner? What if this never happened? Here’s the reality. It did. And no one can revert back and change the pattern in which the crimes were committed and how the consequences played out both for the victims and the perpetrators. The saying goes, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” By stepping away from the blame game, let’s take an honest look at how social workers serving student athletes could have significant impact on cases like this, that sadly, have a potential to occur again.


First of all, we must gather as much accurate information as possible in order to address the entire situation and all involved parties.


Details pertinent to this story are:

1. The boys involved were not university athletes. The victims were boys who were residing in the group foster home in which Jerry Sandusky established called The Second Mile.

2. In 1999, Sandusky retired from Penn State as their assistant coach but was allowed continued access to university facilities.

3. In 2000, a janitor of these facilities witness Sandusky engaging in sexual activity with a boy in the assistant coach’s shower. In fear of losing his job, the janitor was unsure how to report what he saw. He was advised by his supervisor who he could report to if he wanted to.

4. In 2002, a graduate assistant witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a 10 year old boy in the showers around 9:30pm on a Friday evening. He reported what he saw to Joe Paterno who then relays this information to Jim Curley, athletic director, a day later.

5. 10 days later, the graduate assistant, the vice president of finance and business, and the athletic director meet to discuss the incident. No report was made to child protective services or the police.

6. Two weeks later Sandusky’s keys were taken away and he is no longer allowed on campus with any boys. A report was made to The Second Mile regarding this incident.


To many, this situation is more than uncomfortable as sex crimes committed against anyone, especially youth, are often rendered as repulsive and gut wrenching. No one wants to believe that these things happen and no one would wish this on anyone or their children. However, ignoring that these things unfortunately happen or brushing them under the rug will not get the issue addressed, resolved, or facilitate healthy steps for recovery of the victims.


Sports Social Work involvement:

1. Social workers live in a land of the uncomfortable. That which most people won’t talk about social workers create space for open discussion and full disclosure.

2. Had a Sports Social Worker been a part of the Penn State team during this time, once the incident was reported to the coach or athletic director, they could have sought counsel and direction from the social worker.

3. The social worker would have met with the graduate assistant to determine his state of mental well-being and provide guidance for appropriate, necessary reporting.

4. The social worker likely would have provided guidance to the athletic director to involve the police and child protective services as the social worker would reiterate the requirement of mandated reporting.

5. The social worker would follow up with the coach and team as a whole to present a debriefing of the incident (without reference to specific detail) in an attempt to gain perspective of the athletes and insure that they too hadn’t fallen victim to any of these crimes. If so, private follow up counsel would’ve been provided to those who wanted to report any information contributing to this case.

6. Contact likely would have been made to The Second Mile organization to determine who the advocate was for the foster youths’ well-being and report concern to the child protective agency and police if operations seemed out of concordance with child welfare laws.

7. If victims or their families sought counsel, then the Sport Social Worker could connect them with agency resources and local therapists specializing in sexual assault and abuse rehabilitation.

Yes, this is what COULD HAVE happened. This plan still leaves room for human error. However, it addresses the mistakes made and encourages us to learn from this story. Overall, the Sport Social Worker adds a dynamic to the athletic department that doesn’t allow cases like these to remain taboo. The social worker creates a space for discussion of issues that often are overlooked and under-reported in sports. This relates to areas such as mental health, substance abuse, sexuality, gender identification, sexual addictions, gambling addictions, intimate partner violence, and child abuse. By having a professional who specializes in treatment of these issues, coaches, athletes, and athletic departments can focus on their area of expertise which is creating healthy, competitive environments for their players’ growth and success as student-athletes.

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