Up Close with John Amaechi
After his retirement from the NBA, Amaechi became the first former NBA player to come out of the closet publicly. Since then he has been regarded as "one of the world's most high-profile gay athletes." His research and work as a psychologist has brought about a great deal of change in youth sports in England. PSR's Tony DeFazio spent 45 minutes discussing the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State shortly before Thanksgiving.
Tony: In the wake of the scandals at Penn State and now unfolding at Syracuse, do you expect more sexual abuse victims to emerge from the world of athletics?
Amaechi: I think the reality is, yes. But it's not because of sports per se. I think the media coverage of these events may give people the impression that everybody involved in sports is evil, and that's not the case. It's just that what does tend to happen is, when people finally see some movement, when they finally see alleged perpatrators brought to justice, they get a glimmer of hope. For them, there's an opportunity that their case might be brought to justice, and the embarrassment and humiliation of the boys and girls who have been abused feel makes it worth their while. Despite that, it makes it worth their while to get some kind of closure.
Tony: On the flip side, will we see copy-cat accusations from people who haven't been abused?
Amaechi: I'm sure that there is a risk of allegations because we see it in these situations, not only in child abuse cases to be honest, but we do see it in other situations. But in situations like this, the opportunity for real victims to achieve some kind of personal closure, some semblance of justice, is more important than the slight chance that there might be one or two unscrupulous people who would take advantage of this new kind of openness.
Tony: A striking similarity between the allegations at Syracuse and those at Penn State is that both head coaches have become institutions at their respective institutions: Jim Boeheim at Syracuse and of course Joe Paterno at Penn State. When one man is so revered that be becomes a living legend and assumes so much power over a program or even an entire university, does that create a culture whereby something like this is able to not only happen but even thrive without being stopped? Because the attitude of those within that culture is simply denial: 'that could never happen here.'
Amaechi: The short answer is yes.
But when a person becomes an icon, when a coach, an athletic director, whoever, becomes synonomous with that institution—and it's the same with CEO's who are synonamous with their company brand—if that individual behaves in a way that is thoughtful, mindful, careful, then the culture that follows them will be that. If they are the type of person, however, that demands absolute power... if they are the type of person that becomes—I don't know, the center of that universe—at that institution, then that becomes a very dangerous thing.
Tony: Is that what happened at Penn State? Was Joe Paterno too powerful, or “too big to fail” in his mind and in the minds of those around him?
Amaechi: I've said it before: Joe Paterno was the most powerful person in central Pennsylvania as far as I could tell. It was palpable from the moment I walked on campus. I've described this in interviews I've done and in articles I've written. In and of itself, it's not necessarily a bad thing when one person is that powerful, but what it does mean is the more powerful that person becomes, the more onus they have for taking responsibility for everything that happens.
Tony: Did that culture have anything to do with your decision to come out when you did? To wait until you were removed from it?
Amaechi: My intention in going to Penn State was to not only become a psychologist, but also to play basketball professionally. And while I knew that coming out wouldn't affect my chances of becoming a psychologist, I knew that it would end my chances of becoming a professional athlete in the NBA.
Tony: And that had nothing to do with a culture at Penn State, then, correct?
Amaechi: No, no.
Tony: Do you have a relationship with Penn State?
Amaechi: Oh God yes. I love Penn State. I would never disavow Penn State. I would never throw them away like yesterday's newspaper. I owe them a debt.
So my response to this crisis is not to separate myself, but rather to offer to help to change things for the better. There are issues of culture in private that I deal with on a daily basis in my work; I am happy to bring that expertise to Penn State.
Tony: Healing is a word that has been used a lot regarding this situation, even in the context of a football game somehow promoting healing. How does healing—or at least change—begin at Penn State? Can it happen in any way, shape or form though a football game?
Amaechi: No... there are things they can do through the football program, it's a massive, powerful institution. There are young people there who bear absolutely no responsibility for what has happened here, and as such I am loathe for them to be punished. In fairness, however you feel about the power epidemic, and I do feel that power of sports is somewhat disproportionate at too many universities, including schools like Syracuse, which would have been on the tip of my tongue before this. Because as you pointed out, they are that kind of powerhouse.
There are good things you can do with that program. But what needs to happen is there needs to be a change in the perspective we take on sports in college athletics. It's not just a revenue maker. It's not just what people can do for sports. It can't be how can the universities service their athletic departments, but how can the athletic departments serve their schools and communities around them? To me, this is authentic way that Penn State reinstates its athletic programs and reinstates their legitimacy – by showing what they can do. This will be a question of some additional skills being given to the young people who are student athletes; skills that will be transferable when they leave school and the majority of them don't end up play professional sports. It will also involved changing the perspective of coaches, and the demands that we make of coaches in terms of how they interact with the rest of the school as well as with the young people under their care.
The school has already done a great deal of self-disclosure of how it feels about this. I know that there were some fools on campus who rioted and did things like that, but by no means are they Penn State.
And beyond that, it's a question of making sure people know that what Penn State is trying to achieve is authentic, meaningful change, not spin.
Tony: There has been a lot of outrage directed at a lot of people in this situation – from the accused to those alleged to have conspired to cover it up to the media to the students – what is your sense of the genuineness of the outrage and where it's been directed?
Amaechi: I think when you start talking about eight, nine, possibly more young people who were abused right there in the shadow of Beaver Stadium... When you start talking about there being at least one young person who has not yet been identified... Outrage is the only appropriate emotion to have. At least to begin.
Now the task for Penn State, and for those who wish to help, is to channel that outrage into productive, long term change – not just gestures.
Tony: The culture of youth sports is such that there are a lot of situations where this type of abuse could occur – fathers, coaches, volunteers spending a lot of time with young kids, away from their parents, and participating in activities that build trust, etc. Is there a danger that genuine positive interaction goes away or dissipates because of these scandals?
Amaechi: It shouldn't. The reality is that young people want contact with coaches, young boys want to have caring male role models who aren't afraid to put their arm around their shoulder when the kid is sad or down. They need that. That's normal and healthy.
There are going to be people out there who are more worried about litigation than they are about the needs of young people, but the fact is that it's not an incredibly fine line to walk. It's a matter of making your intentions clear. There are some things we know that you just can't do. But most of those things that we're talking about are things that people wouldn't dream about doing. Showering with kids is just not the same as packing them into the car and heading out somewhere on a road trip with your assistant coach or somebody else.
But that authentic care for kids is what we need more of, not less. That type of behavior is the antidote, not the problem.
Tony: In your opinion, is it plausible that no members of the Penn State coaching staff had any idea that something was amiss?
Amaechi: If you read the indictment, it just seems so highly implausible that it's impossible that not just one, but two or five people, didn't know what was going on. There were reports filed to the person who oversees campus police, you know what I mean??
If you are the most powerful person in central Pennsylvania and this is happening in your organization, how do you not find out?
Tony: How does this whole thing leave you feeling, personally?
Amaechi: I am saddened. Every time that I've been introduced as being from Penn State, when people have said, “This is Amaechi, he went to Penn State,” my heart has swollen with pride.
But I was in Washington recently for a dinner, and when I was introduced before I dinner, before I spoke, they introduced me as being from Penn State and the audience gasped... and my heart hurt. That is a transition I don't enjoy and a feeling I don't want to remain. Which is why I want to help make it better.