Questioning the NCAA’s decision making

by Travis Normand

After yesterday’s announcement by the NCAA that it was levying heavy penalties against Penn State University, I have been scratching my head trying to figure out how to respond. 

I still plan on coming up with my own personal response to this mess, but in the mean time, I am thrilled to see what some of the nation’s top college football writers have said.  While my own thoughts are not completely formulated yet, I know which way I am leaning, and it’s not in the same direction as the NCAA.

I have never been very critical of the NCAA, but I may have to make an exception this time (as no one is perfect). 

Here is what others have written about Penn State’s NCAA sanctions:

1) Penn State penalties: NCAA credibility plunges ahead of announcement, by Matt Hayes, college football writer for TheSportingNews.com, 22 July 2012 – Link: http://aol.sportingnews.com/ncaa-football/story/2012-07-22/penn-state-ncaa-penalty-joe-paterno-jerry-sandusky-mark-emmert

Here’s a few more words for you: disingenuous. Grandstanding. Blowhard.

Excuse me if I can’t get excited about an organization that saw Ohio State players accept cash in envelopes after coach Jim Tressel’s lies and illegal benefits for players were exposed, but said lack of institutional control wasn’t an issue.

If I can’t get excited about an organization that knew Cecil Newton was shopping his son, Cam, to Mississippi State — yet let him continue to play at Auburn (and eventually win a national championship) — because it had no rule prohibiting parents from shopping their offspring to the highest bidder.

If I can’t get excited about an organization that knows street agent Willie Lyles was paid $25,000 by Oregon for useless recruiting information; that knows Lyles was the “mentor” for five-star recruit Lache Seastrunk; that knows Oregon coach Chip Kelly lied when asked by a newspaper if he knew Lyles (Kelly later said, we call him ‘Will’); that knows Kelly told Lyles he needed more recruiting information from Lyles after the fact, yet we’re more than a year into the Oregon investigation with no end in sight.

If I can’t get excited about an organization that looked at quite possibly the worst case of NCAA infractions in the history of the sport at North Carolina — in its depth and breadth of clear, indisputable illegal benefits and academic fraud issues — and decided it wasn’t as destructive as a Southern Cal assistant coach who the NCAA claimed “knew or should have known” Reggie Bush was getting illegal benefits.

What happened at Penn State is the single greatest tragedy in sports history. Whatever penalties the university receives from the NCAA — whether or not the sport’s governing body and Penn State agreed on them — isn’t the point. If it were up to me, I’d shut down the program for the exact number of years the university hid the child abuse.

But this isn’t about the penalties; it’s about NCAA process.

Continue reading Matt Hayes’ article here.

2) NCAA puts power in question with rapid decision regarding Penn State, by Andy Staples, college football writer for SI.com, 22 July 2012Link: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/andy_staples/07/22/ncaa-penn-state-decision/index.html?eref=sihp&sct=hp_t11_a0

Whenever an NCAA issue arises, its public relations staff is quick to point out — correctly — that the NCAA is a representative democracy that does the will of its members. The organization’s rules and enforcement procedures were discussed and voted upon by the leaders of the schools those rules and procedures affect. Those procedures have made the NCAA’s justice system quite slow. Ask any USC football fan who waited years to learn how Reggie Bush’s acceptance of money from two wannabe agents would ultimately affect the Trojans’ football program.

Yet here we sit less than nine months from the release of the grand jury presentment that set this scandal into motion. We’re less than two weeks from the release of former FBI director Louis Freeh’s report that concluded former Penn State president Graham Spanier, former football coach Joe Paterno, former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz conspired for years to cover up an accusation that Sandusky had raped a boy in a shower in the Penn State football building in 2001. In this case, absolute power corrupted absolutely. That is plain to see. But it was pretty plain that Bush had taken money and that North Carolina’s football program was rife with issues in 2010. Yet those cases took far longer and followed NCAA procedure. Penn State, in the parlance of the courthouse, is on a rocket docket.

Did Emmert pull a page from the dictator’s playbook and ask for sweeping executive powers in the face of a crisis for which the democratically run organization had not planned? Is that why the NCAA’s Board of Directors granted him the power to punish Penn State? I emailed the NCAA’s chief spokespeople to find out how the penalty decision was made, but as of this writing, they have not responded. What we do know is that the NCAA did not follow its usual process in this case, and that should give pause to everyone in college athletics. . . . .  Make no mistake, the Penn State case places the NCAA in a nearly impossible position. While there is no evidence anyone at Penn State broke any actual NCAA rules — which mostly govern amateurism, competitive equity and academic integrity — this could be the worst scandal to hit major college sports.

Continue reading Andy Staples article here

3) NCAA’s Mark Emmert overstepped bounds in hammering Penn State, by Stewart Mandel, college football writer for SI.com, 23 July 2012 – Link:  http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/stewart_mandel/07/23/penn-state-ncaa-sanctions/index.html?hpt=hp_t2

And so, [NCAA President Mark Emmert] made sure his organization responded accordingly — even if that meant revoking the traditional due process afforded every other school that’s ever been punished by the NCAA; invoking a nebulous, generalized bylaw about promoting integrity that could easily apply to hundreds of lawbreaking players, coaches and staffers across the country every year; and creating a precedent for dictatorial-like intervention that must now be considered every time a scandal of any proportion arises in college athletics.

“While there’s been much speculation about whether this fits this specific bylaw or that specific bylaw,” said Emmert, “it certainly hits the fundamental values of what athletics are supposed to be doing in the context of higher education.”

No argument there. Perhaps this truly is a turning point in the history of the NCAA. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new era where Batman Emmert flies in and saves the day every time the forces of athletic evil make a mockery of academic virtues.

He’d better. Otherwise, this will instead prove to be a crowning moment in NCAA hypocrisy.

Remember when most college football fans assumed Auburn and/or Cam Newton would endure some sort of penalty when the quarterback’s father openly solicited six figures from Mississippi State? The NCAA couldn’t do anything, Emmert insisted, because there was no rule on the books addressing that specific scenario. We’d best not hear that excuse again.

Remember the 2003 murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy by a former player, and head coach Dave Bliss’ subsequent attempt to falsely portray Dennehy as a drug dealer to cover up for illegal tuition payments he’d made? Would Emmert (who was not yet with the NCAA at the time) step in if that indisputably heinous case arose today? If not, why? What’s the threshold in determining whether something is special-jurisdiction-caliber repulsive or leave-it-to-the-enforcement-department-level disturbing?

And have you read about the ongoing academic fraud scandal at North Carolina? Since at least 1999, athletes have repeatedly been steered toward a specific professor’s African and Afro-American Studies course that no one actually taught or attended. Last year’s NCAA investigation only scratched the surface. Considering how highly the NCAA portends to value academics, shouldn’t Emmert step in here, too?

“We don’t see this opening a Pandora’s box at all,” said Emmert. “This was a very distinct and very unique set of circumstances.”

That’s easy to say now. Nothing in the history of NCAA scandals has come close to the level of allowing a serial pedophile free reign to a school’s football facility, and basic faith in humanity make us inclined to believe that it will never happen again.

But there will undoubtedly be another high-profile college scandal, involving yet another unthinkable scenario, whether it’s three months from now or three years from now. And the precedent has now been set. Will Emmert send that program back to the stone ages, too? Or was this a one-time-only, made-for-TV display of power?

Monday’s one truly punitive action against one of the figures implicated in the Freeh Report was vacating Penn State’s victories from 1998-2011, thus stripping Paterno of 111 wins and demoting him from the sport’s alltime leader to 12th place. It seems fair and just, but here again, the NCAA seemingly rewrote its rulebook on the fly. Traditionally victories are vacated when schools are found to have used ineligible players. Nothing of the sort happened here.

But of course, that didn’t fit Emmert’s message.

“One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is the sports themselves can become too big to fail and too big to even challenge,” he said. “The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by hero worship and winning at all costs.”

And so, by waving his magic wand and making Penn State football non-competitive for the next many years, he hopes that all athletic programs will take notice and ensure they don’t fall into the same trap.

Continue reading Stewart Mandel’s article here.

If I had to pick a favorite out of these three, I would go with Stewart Mandel’s article. He points out what Emmert didn’t say, due to the fact that it didn’t fit his message.  Further, he points out the Auburn/Cam Newton situation where Emmert refused to act and cited the lack of a specific rule in doing so. 

The NCAA seems to have a hard time being consistent and following precedent.  However, these most recent actions may be telling of a new era in NCAA jurisprudence.  An era with no due process; where every NCAA rule book provision will be interpreted as broadly as possible in order to claim jurisdiction over any matter.

There would have been nothing wrong with Emmert releasing a statement saying that the NCAA didn’t have jurisdiction in this matter, or that the NCAA investigation would wait until more information comes out before issuing any punishments.

The only person to receive any true individualized punishment from the NCAA was Joe Paterno by having his wins vacated. Meanwhile, former Penn State President Graham B. Spanier, former Penn State Senior Vice President of Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, and former Penn State Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley escaped the NCAA sanctions and suffer none of its ramifications.  

The fact that these three escaped the NCAA’s punishment tells me two things:  (1) that the NCAA has issued sanctions for something that is broader in scope than what the NCAA is designed to regulate, and (2) that Mark Emmert is trying to unjustly broaden the powers of the NCAA.

Further, the fact that the NCAA can hand out punishment to only one of four people implicated in the Freeh report, and seemingly appease the public (for now), tells me that most people are not interested in justice.  They are interested in merely punishing the most high-profile individual, without regard to fairness or due process.  A mob-like mentality that has apparently forgotten about Spanier, Schultz, and Curly.

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