The NCAA’s (somewhat) surprising actions this morning to punish Penn State athletics for the crimes committed and ignored during the last 14+ years have left a whole lot items to ponder and digest. I started writing some of these thoughts out via Twitter and Facebook, but figured it would be easier to just approach them on the blog. So let’s delve into some of the key items from this situation, and what we should be thinking about with them.

  • Did the NCAA overstep its authority? Basically no, although they certainly extended their authority in ways they never had before. As someone pointed out on Twitter, this was basically Mark Emmert and the Executive Committee pulling a Bud Selig and going the “best interests of baseball” route. Here is the relevant NCAA bylaw (particularly section E), which does allow the committee to “Act on behalf of the Association by adopting and implementing policies to resolve core issues and other Association-wide matters.” Has it ever been applied in this manner? To my knowledge, absolutely not. Should it have? We’ll get to that later, but I do think that the NCAA had the ability to do this. I was just initially surprised that they did.
  • Were the penalties appropriate and sufficient? Critical consensus from the media covering the story seems to be that the penalties were what they needed to be, while some basic fan-sourcing on Twitter indicates that most people felt the penalties weren’t great enough. I am similarly split on this. I think that these penalties were the outer extent of what Emmert thought he could get away with without the membership getting nervous. The scholarship reduction alone is interesting, because it effectively drops Penn State’s athlete recruitment down a level in the NCAA hierarchy, from FBS to FCS (since FCS teams only get 63 scholarship slots). The bowl ban is superfluous. The fine is sizable but the athletic department isn’t going to be paying for it directly. I understand the balance the NCAA was looking to strike with these sanctions, by trying to inflict damage on football without overly punishing the non-revenue sports or the business environment surrounding football in State College. On the one hand, I think the penalties are totally insufficient to account for the crimes. On the other hand, the crimes are really crimes of administration rather than football operations, and the real weight of penalties should fall on the disgraced former president, current and former trustees, and other administrative personnel, including coaches.
  • Why bother with vacating wins? This is normally the most worthless element of any NCAA action, but it’s interesting nonetheless to see how they approached it this time around. Vacating all wins from 1998 forward seems intended to be a shot directly across the bow of athletics directors and presidents, warning them that the association can reach back into your school’s past if prompted. I’m not sure I see the deterrent working on an institutional level, so what this ends up being is a convenient way for the NCAA to take Paterno out of the record books, when his continued presence there would have been an embarrassment to the organization.
  • Desmond Howard is ill-informed. He spent five minutes on SportsCenter talking about how the infractions committee suddenly “has teeth”…yet this wasn’t an infractions committee decision, it was an executive committee decision. Big difference.
  • But what about all the innocent football players that are being punished by this scholarship/bowl ban? This argument has popped up a lot on Twitter and Facebook, as has its cousin argument, the “60 million dollar fine will just hurt non-revenue sports!” argument. I understand the intentions, but people need to stop this line of thought. One of the biggest issues within colleges (both athletics and administration) is wrongdoers and criminals hooking themselves up to a situation where they are being shielded by so-called “innocents”, thus putting any enforcement or alteration efforts in the unenviable position of hurting those innocents by taking action. It’s a silly argument. Things are institutional until they’re not, apparently. The issue is the people that have been entrusted with custodianship of those institutions, and how their actions affect the people who work within that institution. Don’t weep for the football players, because they can transfer and go elsewhere — or stay and get their education paid for (as if that’s what they cared about in the first place). And don’t weep for the poor non-revenue sports who might get damaged. Their very financial existence at Penn State has been funded by the decay and rot present in the football program and the central administration over the past 15 years. Frankly, they’re fortunate that all their records during that time haven’t been wiped out, too.

So with all that said, what does it mean?

Let me start by saying that I’m as big of a critic of the NCAA as you’ll find, and I think their approach to everything from bylaws to rules enforcement to amateurism reeks of antiquated thinking, cronyism, and dishonesty. For at least the last 40 years, the NCAA has always been focused first on maintaining its stance as the protector of its financial interests, at the expense of the athletes who make those financial interests exist in the first place. I can’t help but agree with large parts of the thinking of people like Spencer Hall and Drew Magary, both of whom highlight the central hypocrisy of the NCAA’s actions in this situation. This organization exceeds at the bureaucratic trick of fixing the barn door after the horses come home. As I’ve talked about in class before, the worst thing you can do as an institution in terms of rule-breaking isn’t to commit recruiting violations, or pay players, or even violate rules repeatedly. No, the worst thing you can do is to embarrass the NCAA. We’ve seen it in almost every major case over the past 15 years, from Oklahoma to Indiana to USC.

So it’s no surprise that the NCAA’s ire was raised to unprecedented heights as a result of this scandal’s fallout. The Penn State situation is the worst public relations news for college sports ever. Worse than Baylor, certainly. And the NCAA exists almost exclusively as a public relations and moneymaking operation.

The articles I linked above are 100% accurate. The NCAA stepped in to try and seize the moral (and PR) high ground in this situation. From a practical standpoint, the sanctions the NCAA announced do either little (the $60 million anti-abuse fund may or may not have an effect on helping victims) or nothing to directly address what actually occurred.

However, the problem is that in reality, the NCAA cannot do anything to address what actually occurred. In this instance, all they can do is punish the symptoms. They can’t make the administrative culture at Penn State change. That has to come from within Penn State. Would college sports be better off if the NCAA was gone, replaced by a system that was both morally and financially responsible? Yes, absolutely. But until that happens, the NCAA is still around.

It’s for this reason that I’m not opposed to the NCAA’s actions. Because as much as it grates on me that Emmert and the NCAA grandstanded on this situation in the press conference, and talked in buzzwords of “culture” and tried to put itself into the role of some kind of moral arbiter, the fact is that not doing anything would’ve been far, far worse at this stage. I and others have been screaming at the NCAA to do something to illustrate that it’s not solely interested in the self-preservation of its members above all else, to actually utilize enforcement that feels less like a United Nations-style sternly worded letter. So, they’ve done that now. And maybe they’ll do it again in the future. The idea that a member organization doesn’t have the authority to police its membership seems ridiculous, and I’m somewhat dismayed at commentators and friends who have been arguing to the contrary.

I do think that the larger issue here is the administrative failings of Penn State, and it’s here where the media direction should now be turned. We’ve seen college presidents and trustees and NCAA presidents making plenty of strong comments regarding Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky. It’s time those same people started making strong comments about their colleage, Graham Spanier. As much as has been demanded in hindsight of Paterno, even more needs to be demanded of the still-living Spanier. Unfortunately, university presidents and trustees have a strong tendency to close ranks around themselves — actions that they would deem unacceptable were it college football coaches or athletic directors doing the same thing.

The culpability of the Penn State football program has been effectively paraded about in the public marketplace, thanks to the NCAA. It’s now time for the culpability of the Penn State athletic department and central administration to be similarly paraded about. Make no mistake — this situation germinated in the football offices, but it bloomed in the offices of the president of the university and some of the trustees.