Ever since the NCAA’s punishment of Penn State was announced 2 days ago, I haven’t been quite comfortable with it. I needed a few days and to read some more of what the NCAA officials had to say about it before I really felt comfortable trying to articulate exactly why that was.
However, an article that I read this morning that contained several quotes from various people, namely NCAA president Mark Emmert, confirmed several of the thoughts I had about the situation and affirmed in my mind that they were the correct feelings about the situation. All quotes that follow in this post will be from that article.
The basis of my concern is namely that, despite the terrible, terrible things that happened in Happy Valley over the past few decades, Penn State did not violate a single NCAA rules. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby echoed my concerns:
In Dallas, former Stanford athletic director and new Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby also wondered about whether the college sports governing body should be stepping into a criminal matter.
“I don’t know that it is absolutely clear on what basis this becomes an NCAA issue,” he said at football media days.
The issue is not necessarily that the NCAA took a stance on ethical issues that have nothing to do with sports. The article mentions examples of NCAA stances on American Indian mascots and South Carolina’s use of the Confederate flag. Though my own views don’t exactly mirror the NCAA’s on those issues, I’m fine with their course of action because they clearly both laid out their stance on the issue and the actions that they were going to take as a result. In both cases they laid out new rules and punishments rather than handing out punishments ex post facto for actions that at the time did not violate their rules.
Despite that, I do recognize the unusual circumstances in this case, and am sympathetic to the case made by Emmert that this situation is unique and called for a new approach.
Perhaps, I would have been willing to give the NCAA a pass in this case, except for one rather glaring omission from their punishment – a clarification of why Penn State is being punished. So, yes I know *why* Penn State is being punished, but I’m still not sure exactly why. Is it because children were molested and raped on this campus by one of their football coaches? Is it because Joe Paterno and other administrators acted to cover up the abuse? Was it because those same people enabled Sandusky’s terrible crimes against boys to continue? I’m not really sure and the NCAA’s actions and statements are just baffling.
We gain some insight into what behavior the NCAA was trying to punish from the time period when wins were vacated. All wins from 1998 to the present were vacated. Interestingly enough, this makes Penn State’s 1997 win over Wisconsin, a game Penn State won with Mike McQueary starting at quarterback. The very same Mike McQueary who witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in the shower in 2002. I tend to agree with Kurt that the penalty is unjustified, but for slightly different reasons. Namely, that it is both possible to be a terrible human being for reasons unrelated to football and at the same time win football games in full accordance with the rules governing those football games. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that there are a large number of people who are both good at winning football games and bad people outside of football. In contrast to Kurt, I fully support revisionist sports history when appropriate, whether to vacate wins from teams that used ineligible players or to correct blown calls on the 27th out of a perfect game (I don’t care what baseball history books say, Armando Galarraga threw a perfect game).
When you compare the timeline of vacated games to the time line of Jerry Sandusky’s abuse, it becomes quite clear that the vacating of wins was designed to punish the cover up of the abuse rather than the abuse itself. This is evident from both the starting point and ending point of the vacated wins. Sandusky’s abuse started in (or very likely before) 1994. Wins were not vacated until the season when Joe Paterno and school administrators first learned of the abuse, 1998. Every single win in 2011 was also vacated. Including the last game of the season, after Sandusky was arrested, Paterno was fired and every other coach and administrator who was involved in the cover up was no longer working for Penn State. Only the ongoing cover up could justify vacating that win.
This punishment is clearly in contrast to the rhetoric employed by the NCAA that it was Sandusky’s crimes that were the darkest days at Penn State:
Emmert told Ley he saw multiple media reports labeling the NCAA’s ruling as the darkest day in Penn State history. Emmert disagreed with that sentiment.
“(Monday) was a very, very bad day for Penn State University, but it wasn’t as dark as the day boys were being abused on their campus,” Emmert told Ley. “It wasn’t as dark a day as when their former assistant coach was convicted. It wasn’t as dark a day as any number of tragedies that they may have endured on that campus.”
The crime versus the cover up is a difficult ethical situation that I don’t know if I can make any solid statements about, but lets be clear, the NCAA’s actions demonstrate that it was the cover up and not the crime that was the worst thing happening in State College, PA.
The worst part of it all were the justifications for the suite of penalties handed out that were given by Emmert in multiple quotes in the article. That
“What we’re trying to do with these sanctions isn’t just penalize and punish the school, but help them reshape that culture so that they never say the culture of hero worship or the culture of sport is ever going to overwhelm our values again so that we don’t make the right choice at the right time,” Emmert told Ley.
“One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail, indeed, too big to even challenge,” Emmert said. “The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by the value of hero worship and winning at all costs. All involved in intercollegiate athletics must be watchful that programs and individuals do not overwhelm the values of higher education.”
“If you find yourself in a situation where the athletic culture is taking precedence over the academic culture,” Emmert added, “then a variety of bad things can occur.”
I’m not sure whether to laugh or to go vomit.
The situation at Penn State had nothing to do with academics. By nearly all accounts Joe Paterno did an exemplary job of handling the academics of his football team. Jerry Sandusky raping boys in the locker room had nothing to do with academics. It seems to be a case where the culture of hero worship needed to change, but that has nothing to do with academics.
If this punishment is really about stopping an athletic culture from taking precedence over an academic culture, I think about half the SEC needs a multi-year bowl ban and to be docked just as many scholarships as Penn State. Just to put things in perspective, Nick Saban was greeted by “throngs of screaming Alabama fans” when stepped off of the airplane at the airport when he was hired by Alabama. That was just for signing a contact to coach at Alabama.
Of course, I don’t think any person is seriously suggesting that this is actually about stopping a college culture from over emphasizing athletics, engaging in hero worship, or failing to sufficiently care about academics.
The NCAA president was much more honest when he said that
“This is so public, so shocking, so disturbing that it called for a very different approach.”
Yes. The NCAA actions was a response, not so much to the actions of anyone at Penn State, but to the media and resulting public outcry over the situation. They felt they had to so something and fast. This was the worst PR fiasco in the history of the NCAA and they responded with the worst punishments in NCAA history.
I have to wonder what the difference was between the situation at Penn State and the nearly 10 alledged cases of rape and sexual assault by women against the University of Colorado football team from about 1999 through 2004 when Gary Barnett was the coach there including one by a female kick who was on the team that resulted in the worst sanctions ever for Penn State and as far as I can find absolutely no punishment for Colorado. Both schools had football programs with a culture of looking the other way in the face of rape and sexual assault allegations against members of the football program.
Was the punishment they ended up deciding on for Penn State fair? I’m not really sure. But, I am quite certain that the justification for that punishment was terrible and sets a terrible precedent for the future as a result. The message sent by the NCAA seems to be that if you are going to do bad things, we don’t really care as long as you don’t cover it up and create a huge storm of media criticism that makes us look bad. The fact that I wonder if Penn State’s punishment would have been different if the Freeh Report came out after the season had started when college football game discussions and NFL topics would dominate sports media instead of the middle of July when sports radio shows are desperate for anything other than baseball to talk about highlights all that was wrong about the NCAA’s handling of this situation.