While many people who are familiar with my work think I always have a positive reinforcement answer to every situation, let me state for the record that positive reinforcement is not the only consequence needed to correct unwanted behavior.
As I heard the news about the NCAA sanctions given to Penn State University and its football program, it reminded me once again how little the NCAA, institutions, and the public at large understand human behavior. Even though I have studied behavior for most of my life, I will admit that there is still a lot I don’t know about it, but one thing I do know is that punishment stops behavior. The question in this case is what behavior needs to stop and whose behavior is being punished?
Certainly freshman football players did nothing wrong as it relates to the scandal; neither did the new coach. As far as I know, neither did the rest of the players.
Yet they will be the ones most impacted by the sanctions. The coach will be limited in the number of players that can be given scholarships. Players who need them most will be greatly affected. The team will also be affected by sanctions on post-season play. Many others will be impacted economically and socially, including the student body, alumni, businesses and the community.
I have no problem with actions taken in regard to Joe Paterno, a great football coach, even to the tune of removing his statue from the stadium grounds. The question I raise is have all of those who participated in one way or another in covering up or not speaking up about Jerry Sandusky’s crimes received appropriate consequences? It appears that only the coaches, school executive administrators and at least some members of the board of trustees should be the ones who should be punished. Actually, I believe that anyone covering up Sandusky’s behavior, which includes “not speaking up” from knowledge of it, should be terminated.
Since remote consequences have limited impact on the egregious behavior, for their good and the good of the institution, they should be fired. Not receiving a consequence will mean that the behavior will continue in some other circumstance with social or economically sensitive situations. Be that as it may, the question remains: What did the players and new coach do to deserve the negative consequences of the sanctions? Sadly, it is just another case where those with authority (the NCAA) feel that something had to be done to let everyone, particularly the public, know that it does not support such behavior.
The effects of Sandusky’s behavior will have a negative impact on many students, alumni and those in the community for years to come. That is not fair and there is little that can be done to change that. However, while many people will no doubt use the same argument relative to those in the football program who are trying to recover from one man’s pernicious deeds, the leaders of the NCAA can correct this unfairness that they created with the sanctions.
How long do we continue the practice of punishing the innocent to send a message to others? That is neither fair nor effective.