Throughout the entire Jerry Sandusky-Penn State scandal, I have been preaching caution. Sexual abuse is an emotional issue. There is a tendency to want revenge or justice right away. But the wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly.
For once, however, the NCAA’s wheels of justice turned quickly. Just 11 days after the release of the Freeh Report, an investigation commissioned by Penn State, the NCAA threw caution to the wind and hammered Penn State with draconian sanctions, including a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason and bowl ban and a reduction of scholarships each of the next four years.
The NCAA’s actions may have been satisfying to those seeking retribution against Penn State for allegedly allowing Sandusky to continue to prey on boys. But was justice served?
Answering that question with an all-out attack on the NCAA’s hypocrisy is too easy. If I cited all the examples of problems with the NCAA’s crime-and-punishment system, the list might be longer than Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
The NCAA is like a giant piñata. Regardless of which direction you swing the bat, you have a good chance of hitting the target.
Instead of attacking the NCAA’s record, I’ll focus primarily on the NCAA’s actions regarding Penn State. I won’t dispute, as some have done, the NCAA’s right to sanction Penn State. But I will question the motives behind its actions.
The NCAA wanted to send a message. The message is that athletic programs have grown too big. In many cases, the football and basketball programs overshadow the universities. Many coaches seemingly have more power than university presidents.
That’s a worthy message. But Penn State was the wrong school to use as an example.
There is no doubt that football plays an enormous role at Penn State. There is also no doubt that former coach Joe Paterno held tremendous power, as was evident in 2004 when he basically told Penn State president Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley to get off his property when they came to his home to suggest he resign.
The disconnect I heard between the NCAA’s message and Penn State’s situation, however, is when NCAA president Mark Emmert repeatedly referred to the athletic culture overwhelming the academic culture. Emmert referred to Penn State’s athletic culture going “horribly awry” and said athletics are not just about fair play on the playing fields, but about reflecting higher academic values.
It’s difficult to do, but put the Sandusky case aside for a moment. The Sandusky situation is not indicative of the true nature of Penn State’s athletic program. The truth is that Penn State is a shining example of how an athletic department and football program can reflect, and even enhance, a school’s values.
The New America Foundation (NAF) compiles its own Bowl Championship Series rankings every year. Using data related to graduation rates, including comparing the team’s graduation rate to the school’s overall graduation rate, the NAF ranked the top 25 teams in the BCS standings. Guess which football team ranked highest in the NAF’s Academic Bowl Championship Series? Yes, it was Penn State.
Eighty percent of Penn State football players graduated within six years. When players who transferred to other schools or left early to play in the NFL are excluded from the “dropout” rate, the Nittany Lions’ graduation percentage rises to an outstanding 87 percent.
Furthermore, there is no gap between the graduation rates of white and African-American football players at Penn State. According to the NAF, this is very rare for a Division I football team.
In his statement affirming he will remain at Penn State, senior quarterback Matt McGloin refers to current players being punished for “going to class, graduating, being involved in the community and playing football.” Those are the “core values” McGloin says he has learned in the Penn State football program.
The core values expressed by McGloin would seem to be the values Emmert and the NCAA want to exist in intercollegiate athletic programs. So, with all the renegade, outlaw programs where athletes receive improper benefits and aren’t required to regularly attend classes, why single out Penn State as the example of what’s wrong with college athletics?
The simple answer is that Penn State, like the NCAA itself, is an easy target. Who wants to speak out on behalf of a university that, at best, allowed a suspected sexual predator to continue to enjoy privileges on its campus? Given the horrific nature of Sandusky’s crimes, who could express outrage at NCAA sanctions against Penn State (even the vindictive move to vacate all of Penn State’s wins since 1998, thereby saving the NCAA the embarrassment of Paterno ever having been the all-time victory leader among coaches at BCS schools)?
So, after failing to control schools that make a mockery of the term “student-athlete,” the NCAA uses the Sandusky situation to flex its muscles and try to show athletic programs that the NCAA is in charge. But the NCAA’s efforts may be in vain.
The NCAA isn’t the top power in college athletics. The most powerful force is money. As long as money pours into the coffers of NCAA schools because of their athletic programs, big-time football and basketball teams will remain extremely powerful. For example, the additional money that’s going to arrive with the new playoff system for Division I football will provide football programs with more revenue-generating power, not less.
The opportunity to make more money is why schools are switching leagues more frequently than people switch lanes on the turnpike. The system is out of control and the NCAA finds itself powerless to do anything about it.
But the NCAA could punish Penn State. Without even conducting its own investigation. And few outside of the Penn State faithful would complain.
The NCAA based its sanctions largely on the Freeh Report. As Emmert mentioned during his news conference, Penn State has accepted the findings of the Freeh Report.
Of course it did. Penn State wants to put the Sandusky affair behind it as quickly as possible. That’s why the Freeh Report was accepted. That’s why the university consented to the NCAA sanctions.
For Penn State, this is all about damage control. The goal is to get anything related to Sandusky over as quickly as possible so the university can move forward.
But the Freeh Report isn’t gospel. In a previous column, I cautioned against leaping to conclusions based on the Freeh Report. It is a comprehensive report that contains a lot of evidence; however, for legitimate reasons, it does not contain testimony from Curley, vice president of business and finance Gary Schultz and Paterno. Spanier also disputes the conclusions reached in the Freeh Report. We have not yet heard from the defense, so to speak.
What if Curley and Schultz are found not guilty in their criminal trials? What if Spanier presents evidence to the Board of Trustees that, contrary to the conclusions of the Freeh Report, he wasn’t aware in 2001 that Sandusky was being accused of sexual abuse?
There’s a reason the wheels of justice sometimes turn slowly: to make sure we get it right. It our legal system, that’s called due process.
But the NCAA doesn’t care about due process. It cares about sending a message. It cares about public relations. The NCAA felt the need to do something and saw an opportunity to send a message – regardless of whether or not justice was served.