Is the NCAA Abusing its Power with Penn State Sanctions?

I’ll start this post off by saying I have been a fan of the Penn State football program for years. I’m disgusted at what has come out about what went on at that school involving Jerry Sandusky and the sexual abuse of children. The leaders of the school betrayed their students, alumni and fans. However, this post is not written as a fan of the football team. My personal feelings about the school or its football team did not play into my opinions included in this blog post.

Reports started coming out today that on Monday the NCAA will announce penalties against Penn State resulting from the Jerry Sandusky crimes. It’s expected that these penalties will be unprecedented and include a large number of lost scholarships and a loss of multiple bowl games. Rumors were flying over the past week that the NCAA may impose the crippling death penalty against the university’s football program. The death penalty has only been used five times previously by the NCAA and only once against a football program. The most publicized of those previous instances, of course, was the SMU football program in 1987 and 1988.

Based on sources from inside the NCAA, some are saying this morning that the death penalty may be preferable than the penalties coming to Penn State, which is pretty shocking. These penalties must include an enormous amount of scholarships lost.

The question I have is, should the NCAA be bringing penalties against Penn State at all?

This isn’t a question of if those responsible at Penn State should be punished. They should. No question about it. However, they should be punished by legal officials, not the NCAA. Jerry Sandusky was already convicted. The others directly involved in the child sexual abuse and cover-up stand to face the legal system as well, with the exception of former head coach Joe Paterno who passed away in January of lung cancer.

But should others be punished? Should the student athletes who were recruited to play at Penn State and had no involvement in this tragedy be punished? Should the general student population lose part of their college experience, a college experience that led many of them to choose to attend Penn State? Should new coach Bill O’Brien, who was no where near the situation, be punished? What good does punishing those people do? These are questions many are asking. Alabama coach Nick Saban said earlier this week that addressing the problem should be done in a positive manner rather than a negative one. He said that instead of laying negative penalties on the school, the school should use proceeds from its athletic tickets sales to go toward victims of child abuse. Some criticized the idea (and Saban immediately said he probably shouldn’t have thrown out the idea), and it could potentially use some tweaks, but I think his take is along the right lines. Get some kind of positive out of this horror instead of just negativity.

So back to the question I initially asked – should the NCAA bring penalties against Penn State? The answer is, no. It sets a bad, dangerous precedent for the NCAA.

The purpose of the NCAA is to make sure all schools are participating in sports from an even, level playing field. They address issues around recruiting and scholarships to make sure everything is fair and equal. The NCAA has NEVER punished a school for criminal violations. Look back. Ohio State’s tattoo issue was based around improper financial benefits going to players. Even looking back at the sanctions issued against Baylor basketball in the early 2000s, those sanctions were brought because of illegal payments to players and recruiting violations. There was a murder involved, but that was addressed in criminal courts, not by the NCAA.

The NCAA has to be using its ‘lack of institutional control’ rule in this instance (no other violations applies), but the NCAA is going against its own process to bring these penalties. There is no Infractions Committee hearing planned, which is standard operating procedure in cases involving lack of institutional control. (By the way, is this really a lack of control? I heard ESPN’s Colin Cowherd once make a comment along the lines of, ‘this actually seems like too much institutional control.’ I think he’s right. There was definitely no lack here…) NCAA president Mark Emmert and its executive board are using the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh as its basis of bringing a charge instead of commissioning an Infractions Committee investigation and hearing. That Freeh report, by the way, was sanctioned by Penn State’s Board of Trustees. Something like this has never been done.

Emmert, it seems, wants to be Roger Goodell. While past NCAA presidents and executive board members have stated they are not supposed to, and have no desire to, act unanimously, similar in fashion to a professional sports league commissioner, it appears this is exactly what Emmert wants to do. Roger Goodell took some flack for his heavy handed handling of the New Orleans Saints bounty situation, but he was well within his rights as the NFL commissioner. Emmert is no Roger Goodell. He doesn’t have the authority to bring sanctions and penalties against Penn State, and he certainly doesn’t have the authority to do so outside the normal lines of processes that universities are supposed to receive.

The actions here by Emmert and the NCAA executive board set a terrible precedent. This new power would allow them to make decisions and take actions far beyond their past responsibilities. Will university presidents stand up and object to this? Or will they sit back and let it happen? If they sit back, I think they will regret their passive silence at some point in the future.

The NCAA should not be involved in punishing a school for criminal behavior. Let the legal system address that. The Jerry Sandusky situation went far outside the football program. And based on the Freeh report, involved two people inside the football program – Joe Paterno and witness and assistant coach Mike McQueary. The others involved were in administration. Penn State is a public university, funded by the state of Pennsylvania. In my mind, because of that, it actually makes more sense for the state of Pennsylvania to look into penalties rather than the NCAA. This is more than a subject of an equal playing level on the football field. In fact, it has nothing to do with that. The string of actions that have come out did not  in any way give Penn State advantages over Ohio State, Michigan or Illinois on Saturday afternoons. Those in administration (former President Graham Spanier, former Vice President Gary Schultz and former Athletic Director Tim Curley) have already been removed from their positions and face criminal charges. The state of Pennsylvania should also look at forcing each and every person on the Board of Trustees to vacate their roles. Completely new leadership is needed everywhere. Those at the top of the organizational structure at the school deserve punishment. The entire school does not. Let this be sorted out in a legal courtroom. Punish the individuals at fault, not an entire group of people. And, Emmert, if you do want to try and play the ‘lack of institutional control’ card against the school, make sure you follow correct procedures.