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Karma coming for NCAA

Posted by Eric Fisher On November 11

Fisher column logo2It may be obnoxious to say “I told you so,” but … I told you so.

As the NCAA puffed out its chest during July of 2012 and lowered the boom on Penn State, imposing draconian sanctions, I questioned the appropriateness of the sanctions, whether Penn State was the proper place for the NCAA to makes its point that athletic programs shouldn’t become bigger than the university, and even whether the NCAA had jurisdiction to hand out these harsh punishments.

As it turns out, I wasn’t the only one who had these questions.

Julie Roe, the NCAA vice president of enforcement, wrote an email saying, “I characterized our approach to PSU as a bluff when taking with (NCAA president) Mark (Emmert) yesterday afternoon after the call.”

The bluff involved threatening to give the Nittany Lions the “death penalty,” ending the football program. Instead, the NCAA imposed a $60 million fine; a four-year ban on participation in bowl games or postseason games; a reduction in football scholarships from 25 to 15 per year; forfeiting all Penn State football victories since 1998; and allowing students on football scholarships to transfer to other schools and be eligible immediately instead of sitting out the customary one year.

At the time, I wrote that the NCAA sanctions were unfair. I called it a rush to judgment. The NCAA didn’t even conduct its own investigation. It based the sanctions on the flawed Freeh Report, an investigation commissioned by Penn State.

I questioned whether the NCAA had the right to impose these sanctions. Even if it did have that right, I argued that Penn State was the wrong school to use to demonstrate a lack of institutional control over sports programs.

Emmert defended the decision by saying Penn State’s athletic culture had gone “horribly awry,” and said athletics are not simply about fair play on the playing fields, but about reflecting higher academic values.

Under head coach Joe Paterno’s leadership, however, there hadn’t been a hint of a recruiting scandal. At the time, Penn State was ranked No. 1 among the top 25 teams in the BCS standings when the team’s graduation rate is compared to the school’s overall graduation rate. Furthermore, there was no gap between the graduation rates of white and African-American football players at Penn State, which is very rare for a Division I football team. The Penn State football program seemed to reflect the higher academic values to which Emmert referred.

So why did the NCAA pick Penn State to use as an example instead of the countless out-of-control programs that break recruiting rules, graduate a small percentage of players and enroll them in courses which are difficult to fail?

The answer is simple. Penn State was an easy target.

Another email which recently came to light as part of discovery in a lawsuit filed by Pa. state senator Jake Corman, who represents the State College area, basically admitted the NCAA counted on Penn State not putting up a fight.

“I know we are banking on the fact the school is so embarrassed that it will do anything,” wrote Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academics and membership.

Lennon proved to be correct when Penn State approved a consent decree, accepting the sanctions. The NCAA also was counting on nobody coming to the defense of Penn State. Nobody wanted to be perceived as being on the same side as a sexual predator.

Outside of the Paterno family and angry alumni and students, there were a few dissenting voices in the wilderness, like mine, but NCAA schools certainly didn’t want to step forward and object to the treatment of Penn State.

Seeing a defenseless target, the NCAA did what all bullies do: it attacked an organization that wouldn’t fight back.

Forget about doing what’s right. And due process can go to hell. The NCAA, accused of lacking control of its members, saw an opportunity to look tough and jumped right in. It took advantage of the despicable Sandusky situation to improve its long-suffering public image.

Now, thanks to Corman’s lawsuit, we’re gaining new insight into the motives behind the NCAA’s actions regarding Penn State and the doubts about whether the organization had the right to impose these sanctions for actions by someone no longer on the football staff. We’re also learning why the NCAA dropped some of the sanctions, ending the bowl ban and restoring the scholarships taken away, earlier this season.

As we’re discovering more about the NCAA, the NCAA may be in for a discovery of its own during this lawsuit: Karma can be a bitch.

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