One of the reasons Mark Emmert left the University of Washington presidency to head the NCAA was that he wanted a job with national impact.
I always thought that was funny. Being president of the NCAA is like being a department-store Santa Claus: Just because a lot of people come talk to him doesn’t mean the guy runs the store.
But Monday that apparently changes, because Santa, crushed by the worst scandal in sports history, is going out out over his sled by issuing unprecedented sanctions against Penn State for a lot of bad things that happened, but didn’t happen to violate NCAA rules.
The NCAA said Sunday it will announce at 6 a.m. PDT Monday “corrective and punitive” penalties, based on the scathing indictment in an investigation headed by former FBI director Louis Freeh that concluded Penn State officials, including head coach Joe Paterno, for 14 years hid the sex abuse of children by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Emmert will invoke new powers given his office by the NCAA’s board of directors that will allow him to deliver immediately a multiple-year bowl ban and crippling scholarship losses, according to two anonymous sources quoted by Yahoo! sports.
Penn State will not receive the NCAA’s “death penalty,” but there was media speculation that the sanctions may be nearly as bad.
The news came the day after school officials removed the statue of Paterno outside the football stadium in State College, PA., because it had become a “source of division and an obstacle for healing,” according to president Rodney Erickson.
Emmert’s decision to neither wait for more court proceedings against Penn State officials nor conduct the NCAA’s own investigation, is as unprecedented as the decision to give Emmert what amounts to “moral” powers akin to a pro sports commissioner.
While such a move seems to make as little sense as an extreme reaction to an extreme circumstance, it creates a precedent that is potentially complicated and contradictory to the NCAA’s primary mission, which is to create an “even playing field” for sports, teams and conferences that volunteer to join an association that has no subpoena power and a limited investigative ability to enforce its own rules.
The NCAA has used its voluntary “association” status and non-profit, tax-exempt status as de facto shields against the reality that it is a large national entertainment monopoly with revenues in the billions built on the backs of “amateur” student-athletes who are compensated with scholarships whose values typically are well below state minimum wages for the hours worked. It remains astonishing that a 19th-century system invented by British royals to keep “townies” from dominating their polo matches remains a bedrock institution in American sports.
The organization’s power rests not in Emmert’s office — the presidency is largely a caretaker position with little authority beyond scolding — but with university presidents, nearly all of whom lack the guts to pull their universities away from the arms race of NCAA revenues so lucrative that it can turn a one-time cow college such as Penn State into a nationally recognized brand that traded on its false reputation for sports integrity and honor.
Yet, calls for the “death penalty” for Penn State fly in the face of the fact that revenues from football not only sustain that sport at that school, but nearly all the non-revenue sports at all major schools. Closing football and the subsequent loss of TV revenue even for one year would force publicly funded, major universities such as Penn State to maintain non-football scholarships and sports with general-fund money, which is nearly impossible in light of the four-year recession that has severely slashed budgets at all levels of education.
Also nearly impossible is untangling major college sports from the seemingly unending series of scandals perpetrated by this system. The scandals would seem to have peaked at child sex abuse being deemed less important than a school’s athletic reputation. But as long as great sums of money are available to universities for merely granting permission to telecast, one can never assume anything.
ESPN and, to a lesser extent, the other cable and broadcast networks, own college sports and perhaps the universities themselves, because the nets provide the schools the surest income and highest profile in a failing economic environment. It is virtually irresistible and nearly uncontrollable. To think that punishing Penn State now is going to help create desperately needed reforms is like believing that arresting a teenager with an ounce of marijuana is going to teach a lesson to the Mexican drug cartels.
Empowering Emmert with a new sort of weapon against venality and moral turpitude that extends to college presidents is, however, intriguing. Does the power extend to opening anxiety closets of secrets at every school? Will it make schools come clean, or just make the cover-ups more sophisticated? By exercising this power, Emmert is saying he can’t even trust university presidents, of which he was one, twice (also at LSU). And they are the ones who hired him.
It’s likely that Emmert will try to construct a virtual fence around the episode, saying this exercise of punishment absent a hearing from the defense will be, he hopes, unique. Well, tell that to the rivals of schools who win championships by breaking NCAA rules or having students and/or staff engaging in criminal misbehavior. Who draws the line, the rivals ask, and where?
If it’s Washington or LSU that falls into Emmert’s self-defined crosshairs, then what? Does he recuse himself, or stay put and make justice a greater mockery? Or does he demand a rewrite of the bylaws to create his own enforcers — let’s call it the Vladimir Putin model — that deals justice in his image apart from NCAA procedures?
If you are uncertain about the extent to which conflicts of interests abound, that’s understandable. But please don’t lose track of the most potent part of the statement 10 days ago by Freeh in announcing his panel’s findings.
“Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State,” he said. “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.”
The system that created such a horror was built and sustained not merely by the Penn State miscreants, but the NCAA organization, its individual members, and media and fans who enable it. Hard to spot a true reformer anywhere in the bunch.
We all are desperate to find a bad guy, a bad school, rage, punish and hurry up about it. Game-day Saturdays aren’t far off.