By Joe Ehrmann
The reflective and regretful six words uttered by the late Penn State Coach Joe Paterno—“I wish I had done more”—could very well summarize what each of the men indicted or fired at Penn State must be feeling for their role in not stopping a predatory coach from sexually victimizing young boys. Arguably, each of these men is a “good man.” But that’s part of the problem—it’s not enough to just be a “good man”—you have to engage in what is around you and become a man of action. An involved man’s voice and actions are in alignment with his moral and ethical beliefs. Moral courage enables us to stand up for what is right even if it means standing alone or risking rejection or negative consequences.
As Edmund Burke stated—and the shameful inaction at Penn State illustrate—“all it takes for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Evil prevailed at Penn State due to an extreme lapse in moral courage. What keeps us from being conscious and courageous enough to protect the hearts, souls and bodies of children? How could it be that for more than 15 years, at least nine boys were sexually abused?
I want to suggest three steps to demand accountability for the safety and protection of every child everywhere and to help good men and women become involved persons of action in the war against child abuse. My hope is that by implementing these steps, adults will become better protectors of those who cannot protect themselves. May we stay ever mindful of Joe Paterno’s parting words, “I wish I had done more.”
Teach, model, nurture and develop moral courage
As I wrote in my book, InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives (insideoutcoachingbook.com,), moral courage is what sustains the basic freedoms and responsibilities of life in community; we belong to each other; we need each other; we affect each other. What is painfully missing in this horrific story at Penn State is the lack of moral courage displayed by men who spent a lifetime in education, leadership, sports, coaching and working with young people.
Courage can be divided into two types: physical and moral. Of the two however, physical courage is the more recognized virtue in the world of sports. Coaches talk about physical courage; they encourage it and hold up examples to the team often in the context of fighting through injuries, rehabilitation, and pain. There is far too little emphasis on teaching, modeling, nurturing and developing moral courage
Moral courage can be likened to a muscle—it can be strengthened and developed through training and proper nourishment. I challenge every coach, teacher, parent, administrator—all of us—to seize the Penn State story as an opportunity to evaluate the strength of our own moral courage and start integrating practical skills that build and strengthen that muscle to act in the face of injustice. For teachers it will be in your lesson plans; for coaches, at practice; for all of us in our daily conversations.
Every day young people are tempted to break moral codes over a missing homework assignment, engage in gossip, and boast about some sexual proclivity of themselves or others. Think of the myriad of other academic, peer or social pressures on young people to conform to self-preservation at the expense of their own moral well-being. We have an opportunity to engage young people in age appropriate discussions of moral courage, including the devastating results when one’s moral courage muscle is atrophied and impotent.
It is time for every individual and institution to take responsibility for developing moral courage. The leaders of institutions cannot build moral courage into others when the strength of that leader’s courage is weakened. How an institution holds its adults accountable for the growth and protection of our children should be a measure of its own moral courage—whether it is politically safe or not. If we are taking responsibility for our young people, let’s have the moral courage to back it up so the next time a crisis occurs none of us will ever have to say, “I wish I had done more.”
Create policy, procedures and accountability to protect children
We must demand the highest standards of accountability at every level, individually and institutionally. Coaches by the very nature of their power, platform and position in the lives of young people, must be screened and educated to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to threats of child abuse. And they must be held accountable to enact them. In fact, every institution should have a policy—including training and accountability—built into its culture to protect children under its care.
Every day it seems we are reminded of the long list of institutions over the course of history that preferred to protect themselves rather than protecting children. This institutional self-preservation has historically permitted pedophiles, molesters and abusers the access and sanctuary to destroy the hearts, minds and souls of millions of children. When there are no guidelines or protective procedures, teams and leagues literally open the door for abusers. And in our ever-expanding competitive youth sports universe, there are too many schools, leagues, teams and programs that have failed to place a protective barrier around our children.
Every youth sports program should have policies, training and sexual abuse awareness in place for players, parents, coaches and administrators. If they don’t, demand it. It is not enough to say you have a policy. If coaches and volunteers don’t know the policy or are not held accountable to enforce its rules, then it is just words on paper. Every principal, board member, athletic director, coach and parent should demand these protective procedures are being practiced. Don’t be afraid to speak up and find out what protective procedures exist. “I wish I had done more” never need be a final statement since we always can do more.
Act morally courageous and responsible to prevent child sexual abuse
As a nation we seem to be paralyzed by beliefs and feelings around the subject of child sexual abuse. It appears too shameful, uncomfortable or impolite to talk about personally or publically. I know. As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I carried a shame that silenced me for almost 50 years before revealing my abuse in InSideOut Coaching. Since the book was released last August, I’ve been amazed at how many people have emailed, called or approached me to share their own stories of abuse or the abuse of loved ones.
Adult retrospective studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that one in four women and one in six men were sexually abused before the age of 18. This means there are more than 42 million adult survivors of child sexual abuse in the U.S. Too many of us are silent because we have not sought the help needed to overcome the social stigma attached to sexual abuse. I know for me in this part of my life journey I will continue to find my voice and stand up, show up and speak out in hopes of preventing another tragic story of failed moral courage and human responsibility.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” In the face of the Penn State tragedy, and in prevention of future crimes against children, each of us should ask what we can do to help prevent child sexual abuse so we will never have to hear ourselves lament, “I wish I had done more!”
Author of InSideOut Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives, Joe Ehrmann is founder and president of Coach for America and a former player on the Baltimore Colts in the NFL. He leads trainings and workshops around the country. A version of this article appears on his website (www.coachforamerica.com).