Appalling as was the conduct of Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State assistant football coach who was convicted Friday of 45 counts of sexually abusing 10 young boys, nearly as pathetic is the NCAA’s inability to have a role in helping fix what was allowed to happen at Penn State and prevent its recurrence elsewhere.
The growth of college sports into a lucrative entertainment colossus, shepherded by the NCAA, is what helped shield Sandusky’s crimes for at least 14 years. No person with NCAA standing in Happy Valley who knew what was going on dared say anything, for the risk it posed to head coach Joe Paterno, his empire and all who were sustained by it.
In their world view, Penn State was too big to fail.
Not true, as it turned out. Penn State did fail, from the top down, all the way to students who joined the campus protests in the early days following Sandusky’s arrest, oblivious to the fact that placing their unearned loyalty to an iconic program ahead of tragedy made their school look even more corrupt to the world.
The university president, Graham Spanier, was fired by the board of trustees four days after Sandusky’s November arrest. He has not been charged, but is subject to two investigations underway about a coverup. Fired too, were vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley, who were charged with perjury for lying to a grand jury.
Two weeks ago, prosecutors made a new filing in the perjury case that disclosed Schultz “created, maintained and possessed” files whose emails contradict the testimony of Schultz, Curley and others about what they knew regarding an allegation of possible sexual misconduct by Sandusky.
Reports indicated that the information suggested Spanier decided to suppress the information “for humane reasons” on behalf of Sandusky. If true, the cover-up conspiracy that many believe took place to protect the empire will bring down more and further indict the pedestal upon which college sports has been placed.
But it won’t much engage meaningfully the NCAA, which will get involved only if it is discovered that a Nittany Lions coach gave an impermissible peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to a recruit at an airport departure gate in full view of a booster from a rival school.
Spanier, Schultz and Curley, like their big-school counterparts across the country, are members of the NCAA, a voluntary, non-profit association regulated only by self-approved industry by-laws that create rules for games, eligibility, discipline and the sharing of revenues. It does not report to any agency independent of the university system. Lacking subpoena power, the association also enforces no rules but its own, none of which address an adult former employee using a campus shower room to have forced sex with underage boys, then covering it up.
Not only is the association not answerable, in cases of violations of civil or criminal laws, it has no power. The campus police are paid not by the NCAA by the universities, as we saw at Penn State.
Individual universities may investigate and terminate employees and students for violations of contract or code. Or, in the case of Penn State, not.
Therein lies the problem. If the entire university, in tacit concert with colleagues in the association and even the athletes themselves, see the status quo as inviolate, who will have the courage and leverage to tell them that something is seriously wrong?
A less outrageous example, although along the same lines of jeopardizing the safety of young people, occurred a decade ago at the University of Washington, when Dr. William Scheyer doped up the women’s softball team.
The Huskies were in annual hot pursuit of a national championship, a rare feat for an otherwise nationally prominent sports program, and apparently were willing to use most any means to the achievement.
In 2004, Scheyer pleaded guilty in federal court to illegally obtaining and distributing, without directions on use, narcotic prescription drugs to players, who nicknamed him “Dr. Feelgood” and “The Candyman.” In a sworn statement, Scheyer, who volunteered his services, admitted prescribing, from 2001 to 2003, thousands of doses of narcotic painkillers, sedatives and tranquilizers, all controlled substances. Some players said he handed pills out on bus rides and that they had played in games after taking muscle relaxants. One player during a game, apparently high, began attempting to swim on the floor of the dugout.
The Scheyer debacle caused the firing of coach Teresa Wilson in December, 2003, and helped force the early retirement of athletic director Barbara Hedges. Even though Scheyer took responsibility, his lawyer defended him by saying Scheyer intended no harm, and that he had been following procedures that were common at UW Medical Center and other university hospitals around the country since the 1970s. He had been the university’s staff doctor for its football, basketball and track teams.
From that, we deduce two things:
1) Good to know the athletic department was dealing just like junkies on the Ave;
2) Sandusky has said he was helping kids too.
The discovery of Scheyer’s misdeeds was concurrent with Rick Neuheisel’s firing as football coach over gambling in a college-basketball auction pool, and lying about it. Because it was football, the Neuheisel story overshadowed the softball team’s drama.
But in real life, what Scheyer did was far more reckless because it put in jeopardy the health of students the university has an obligation to protect from abuse. All Neuheisel did was engage in an activity that was fundamental to the success of big-time college sports — gambling.
Naturally, the NCAA punished Washington not for the softball disaster but for lying about gambling, which harmed no one. Then the two institutions were punished by Neuheisel when he won a lawsuit for wrongful termination, mostly because the NCAA didn’t know its own rules. If players’ health weren’t an issue, the NCAA’s conduct would have its own show on Comedy Central.
In light of the worst scandal in American sports history, the travail at Washington pales. But the comparison illuminates a common thread that, when it comes to big-time college sports — now more than ever, thanks to billion-dollar TV-rights fees — the pressure to win big, all the time, at all levels in all sports, brings an intensity that can trump all, including judgment over the welfare of kids. Not only can the NCAA do nothing about it, what it can do — take away athletic careers for the smallest of deeds that violate no law — it does with misguided sanctimony.
In a New York Times column by op-ed columnist Joe Nocera, who wrote several columns lambasting the NCAA, he cited the response from one reader whose son’s sports career had been thwarted needlessly:
The NCAA is like the Gestapo. Its out there, we all fear it, and it is all-powerful and follows its own rules and makes them up as they go along. Who are they protecting? The same thing the Gestapo protected: themselves.
Sandusky’s conviction may be the first of several in this sordid case. But unless the revulsion is sufficient to help promote fundamental reform — or dissolution — of the NCAA, justice may be served but progress will not. The universities’ big-time athletic programs, and fans and media that support them, should never be too big to fail, because the first victims will be kids.