Monday, July 23, 2012

The NCAA and Penn State: A Contrarian View (you expected otherwise?)

As I’ve mentioned before, one of my best friends is an administrator at Penn State University. He had nothing to do with any of the current turmoil—he wasn’t there yet when Jerry Sandusky was roaming the sidelines and the showers—but it falls to him and others like him, people who didn’t look the other way, to clean up the mess. I don’t think this influences what I’m about to say, but I mention it in the interest of full disclosure.

This morning the National Collegiate Athletic Association laid down “staggering” sanctions against Penn State, and online polls are asking if they were severe enough. Yes, there is an option to say that the scandal is none of the NCAA’s freaking business (absolutely true, but—of course—chosen by less than a quarter of respondents), but if you just want to say the penalties were too harsh, you’re out of luck. Glad the media have decided for us how we should respond.

The sanctions include a fine of $60 million (plus loss of Big 10 bowl revenues, another $13 million)[EDIT: It turns out the denial of Bowl proceeds was a Big 10 decision, not an NCAA decision. Apologies for the error.], all of which money will go to non-Penn State-related programs to prevent child sexual abuse; vacating all of Joe Paterno’s wins since 1999, dropping him from 1st to 5th on the list of winningest coaches; a four-year ban on post-season play; and the ability of any player, including recruits who haven’t played a down, to transfer to another school and play immediately, without the normal one-year wait. There are those who think the penalty will be more crippling to the future of the Penn State football program than the “death penalty”—a complete suspension of the program for a specified period of time—would have been.

Of course, there’s considerable debate—and not just from NCAA skeptics like me—about whether the NCAA has any jurisdiction in this case whatsoever. Their job—at which they fail rather spectacularly—is to enforce the proverbial “level playing field,” not to play cops and robbers. But whereas at least three of the last seven Heisman Trophy winners were very likely to have been taking illegal payments or otherwise scamming the system, and multiple major universities have found to be cheating, sanctions for those schools have been insignificant in comparison.

Let me explain. I am not suggesting that players’ getting free tattoos is a worse crime than covering up for a sex offender. But it is more problematic—or should be so—to the NCAA, whose job ought to be to enforce its rules about amateurism, scholastic progress and the like, and to leave the real criminality to the police and similar authorities. Really, we’re talking about the same creeping authoritarianism that I often complain about with respect to schools, except that now we’re talking about an athletics organization that seems considerably more interested in strutting its propriety than in actually deserving the reputation it seeks.

This isn’t just me saying this, as I suggested earlier. Here’s what an ESPN article has to say:
A former Committee on Infractions chairman and current Division I Appeals Committee member told's Andy Katz on Sunday the NCAA's penalizing of an institution and program for immoral and criminal behavior also breaks new ground….

“This is unique and this kind of power has never been tested or tried,” the former chair said. “It's unprecedented to have this extensive power. This has nothing to do with the purpose of the infractions process. Nevertheless, somehow (the NCAA president and executive board) have taken it on themselves to be a commissioner and to penalize a school for improper conduct.”

The chair said that the NCAA was dealing with a case that is outside the traditional rules or violations. He said this case does not fall within the basic fundamental purpose of NCAA regulations.

“The purpose of the NCAA is to keep a level playing field among schools and to make sure they use proper methods through scholarships and et cetera,” the chair said. “This is not a case that would normally go through the process. It has nothing to do with a level playing field. It has nothing to do with whether Penn State gets advantages over other schools in recruiting or in the number of coaches or things that we normally deal with.”

The NCAA, the chair said, had never gotten involved in punishing schools for criminal behavior.

“The criminal courts are perfectly capable of handling these situations,” the former chair said. “This is a new phase and a new thing. They are getting into bad behavior that are [sic.] somehow connected to those who work in the athletic department.
Moreover, there is no way to excuse the NCAA’s blithe circumvention of their own due process procedures. It’s difficult to find much sympathy for the Paterno family, but they’re right about this, taken from their statement this morning in response to the NCAA’s announcement of the sanctions:
That the president, the athletic director and the board of trustees accepted this unprecedented action by the NCAA without requiring a full due process hearing before the Committee on Infractions is an abdication of their responsibilities.
I completely agree. Current Penn State President Rodney Erickson’s complete capitulation to the NCAA goons is, frankly, a dereliction of duty. He’s as big a craven jackass as his predecessor; it’s just the identity of the Other Guy that has changed. Paterno ran Spanier’s Penn State; the NCAA runs Erickson’s.

That ESPN article cited above also says this:
The NCAA took unprecedented measures with the decision to penalize Penn State without the due process of a Committee on Infractions hearing, bypassing a system in which it conducts its own investigations, issues a notice of allegations and then allows the university 90 days to respond before a hearing is scheduled.

After the hearing, the Infractions Committee then usually takes a minimum of six weeks, but it can take upward of a year to issue its findings.

But in the case of Penn State, the NCAA used the Freeh report—commissioned by the school's board of trustees—instead of its own investigation.
So the NCAA, in other words, is butting in where it has no business, and violating its own rules in the process. But, as they say in the infomercials, that’s not all.

Put simply, there is no way that these sanctions can avoid hurting the innocent. The sexual abuser is long gone. The coach who looked the other way is dead. The president who facilitated the cover-up was fired. True, there are probably some other folks involved who are still at the university, but my guess is that there aren’t many. I took my current job in 2001, roughly the time frame we’re talking about with respect to Penn State. There has been at least one, often more than one, change in every job up the chain of command from me: Director of the School, Dean of the College, Provost, President. No one, as far as I know, has served for more than two three-year terms as a member of the Board of Regents, and there have been several different Chairs of that body. Only one of my seven full-time departmental colleagues from that year is still here, and she came the same year I did. If we extrapolate from there to Penn State, we can only conclude that most of the guilty are gone, even if they weren’t fired.

So who is being punished? Players who came to Penn State in part for its winning tradition, but also for its squeaky-clean reputation. This wouldn’t apply to new recruits, but certainly the upperclassmen would have enrolled at Happy Valley confident that they were joining one of the most reputable programs in the country. And they were. Indeed, one could make the case that Joe Paterno was, in all things but one, a model coach. Unfortunately, that exception was a lack of moral courage when he needed it most. But spare me the sanctimony about how you (not you, Gentle Reader; you, talking head or former coach or whatever) would have reacted differently. Perhaps you would have. I know that I hope I would have… but know it? I can’t say that, and, alas, neither can anyone else.

True, the NCAA has arranged it so that players can transfer elsewhere without penalty. That would be to abandon their friends and academic programs (the NCAA is big on academics… except when it isn’t) to transfer on about two weeks’ notice before fall practice begins to a place where they don’t know the system, didn’t go to spring practice and can’t find their way around campus without a map. What’s particularly significant here is that the “good kids,” the ones the NCAA purports to care most about, are the ones most adversely affected because they’re more likely to stay at Penn State. The ones who care only about football, and they are manifold, however much the NCAA would like to pretend otherwise: they’ll transfer to some other school where football rules the university: to Alabama or Auburn or Notre Dame or Oregon or Southern California or Florida or Ohio State or… sigh.

And, of course, it’s not just the players, but the coaches who had nothing to do with the scandal, the cheerleaders and marching band who don’t get to go to a bowl game, the local businesses that won’t attract as many customers when the team loses lots of games for lots of years into the future, as now appears more likely than not. Yes, it’s inevitable that the innocent will suffer in cases like this. What’s different here is that it is almost exclusively the innocent who will do so.

One of the ironies in this case is that, in vacating all those Paterno victories (Idiot Local Sports Guy on the Radio says the NCAA “just couldn’t” allow him to be #1 in wins), the NCAA now places former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden at the head of the list for victories by an FBS (Division I) coach. Yes, that would be the same Bobby Bowden who made pious proclamations about how he loved his dear friend Joe Paterno, but the statue needed to come down. It’s also the same Bobby Bowden who ran one of the most corrupt programs in the country, whose own win total was reduced by the NCAA because he was linked to wholesale academic cheating (you know, something the NCAA actually ought to be concerned about), and who was… erm… asked to retire under yet another ethics cloud. Plug “Bobby Bowden academic scandal” into Google and you’ll get 70,000 hits; “Bobby Bowden the cheater” generates 112,000. Whew. Glad that Paterno guy isn’t topping the list anymore.

It's also worth mentioning, by the way, as Jeff Eisenberg points out:
The irony of the NCAA’s punishment is Penn State will keep nearly all its victories from the 30 years convicted child sex offender Jerry Sandusky was an assistant coach. During the years in which he served as defensive line coach, linebackers coach and defensive coordinator, Penn State amassed 309 victories, only 19 of which were vacated by the NCAA’s ruling.
Penn State will find itself settling lawsuits and paying tens of millions of dollars to those brutalized by Jerry Sandusky: and they should. With an endowment just short of $2 billion, they can afford it. As a loyal fan of the Kansas Jayhawks, who would be thrilled with a 4-8 season this year, I can also tell you that there is no God-given right to play in a Bowl game. And there really is plenty that’s good about Penn State that has nothing whatsoever to do with football; an opportunity to re-define itself as a first-rate academic institution isn’t entirely a bad thing, even if “opportunity” looks more like desperate necessity right now. They’ll be fine.

All that said, the NCAA couldn’t care less about what is fair. They are interested in two things only: their own power and their image, independent of whether they deserve it. They care more about censoring mascots than about real problems, and they care more about appearing ethical than in being so. No other organization (well, outside politics and religion, at least) could as brazenly ignore its own rules, interfere in matters where it has no legitimate interest while reeking of its own self-proclaimed piety, or exercise power simply because it can.

The NCAA, in other words, is grandstanding. In other news, water is wet.

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