BY Art Thiel 04:22PM 07/22/2012

Thiel: Penn State makes Emmert go rogue

Former UW president, now NCAA chief, will announce Monday harsh punishments for Penn State without giving the school a hearing. When did NCAA become the KGB?

In sanctioning Penn State without investigation, NCAA president Mark Emmert is opening up a troubling new world upon college sports. / NCAA photo

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.


YourThoughts

  • Will

    We live in a time of drone attacks, public stonings and executions, of reality tv voting, of sports scandals and rampant media sensaionalisms … of courts of public opinion … of slacktivism. just look at how the NFL sells itself as judge and jury … and the NCAA has always been an Avery Brundage kind of bully, so why expect anything else from them?

    • Artthiel

       That’s a lot of dot connections, Will. Not sure I agree, but regarding the NFL, any sports league has a right to set behavior standards as long as it bargains the deal with the union, which it has. There is no union for players in the NCAA, and very few adults/lawyers want to take up their cause because it will spoil their fall Saturdays. So the exploitation of kids on the field has gone on far longer than it should have, because no kid on a one-year renewable scholarship will ever sue. 

  • Will

    We live in a time of drone attacks, public stonings and executions, of reality tv voting, of sports scandals and rampant media sensaionalisms … of courts of public opinion … of slacktivism. just look at how the NFL sells itself as judge and jury … and the NCAA has always been an Avery Brundage kind of bully, so why expect anything else from them?

    • Artthiel

       That’s a lot of dot connections, Will. Not sure I agree, but regarding the NFL, any sports league has a right to set behavior standards as long as it bargains the deal with the union, which it has. There is no union for players in the NCAA, and very few adults/lawyers want to take up their cause because it will spoil their fall Saturdays. So the exploitation of kids on the field has gone on far longer than it should have, because no kid on a one-year renewable scholarship will ever sue. 

  • Husky loyalist

    This is typical of Emmert, who wanted to have “national” impact because of his huge ego
    and his thirst for an even higher salary than the inflated one he drew at the UW.  He was not president of LSU, by the way, but ran its Baton Rouge campus.  The UW job was his first college presidency.

    I wonder if the NCAA gave thought to the precedent this would set and if they really want to change the rules in an extraordinary situation in which criminal and civil law would seem to have precedence.
    What about the next case of moral turpitude or criminal or civil violation by a college coach or athlete?  

    • Artthiel

       That’s the scenario that is most troubling with this precedent. I see misbehaviors by Bobby Petrino, Rick Pitino, etc., that leave college presidents in a tough spot. It may take an “Emmertvention” to set it right, but what is the minimum standard for it? Don’t know yet.

  • Husky loyalist

    This is typical of Emmert, who wanted to have “national” impact because of his huge ego
    and his thirst for an even higher salary than the inflated one he drew at the UW.  He was not president of LSU, by the way, but ran its Baton Rouge campus.  The UW job was his first college presidency.

    I wonder if the NCAA gave thought to the precedent this would set and if they really want to change the rules in an extraordinary situation in which criminal and civil law would seem to have precedence.
    What about the next case of moral turpitude or criminal or civil violation by a college coach or athlete?  

    • Artthiel

       That’s the scenario that is most troubling with this precedent. I see misbehaviors by Bobby Petrino, Rick Pitino, etc., that leave college presidents in a tough spot. It may take an “Emmertvention” to set it right, but what is the minimum standard for it? Don’t know yet.

  • RadioGuy

    Yeah, I guess Porn State should’ve been given a slap on the wrist for looking the other way while young boys’ lives were being ruined by one of their assistant football coaches.  Thank God you guys aren’t the parents of my grandchildren.  What would it matter to YOU if they’re being abused since they don’t fill stadiums every Saturday?  Great priorities.

    • Artthiel

      Radio, not sure who “you guys” are, but Emmert’s decision to drop the hammer is morally justifiable, but why did it take the rape of children to force the NCAA to demand real accountability for putting football first, which, from an institutional view,  is what this story is about?

  • RadioGuy

    Yeah, I guess Porn State should’ve been given a slap on the wrist for looking the other way while young boys’ lives were being ruined by one of their assistant football coaches.  Thank God you guys aren’t the parents of my grandchildren.  What would it matter to YOU if they’re being abused since they don’t fill stadiums every Saturday?  Great priorities.

    • Artthiel

      Radio, not sure who “you guys” are, but Emmert’s decision to drop the hammer is morally justifiable, but why did it take the rape of children to force the NCAA to demand real accountability for putting football first, which, from an institutional view,  is what this story is about?

  • jimc

    Trying to parse Art’s column here. It was posted before the NCAA news conference. I liked Doyle’s latest CBSsports.com article.

    As a PSU alum I feel this punishment is just about right. Better than “death penalty.”

    • Artthiel

       As I wrote, the death penalty means the one-year end to football income, which pays for all the other sports. That is a WMD that damages way too much. Penn State fans can still attend a season’s games and help pay for the Sandusky fallout damage, but the consequences of putting football first has a defined consequence.

  • jimc

    Trying to parse Art’s column here. It was posted before the NCAA news conference. I liked Doyle’s latest CBSsports.com article.

    As a PSU alum I feel this punishment is just about right. Better than “death penalty.”

    • Artthiel

       As I wrote, the death penalty means the one-year end to football income, which pays for all the other sports. That is a WMD that damages way too much. Penn State fans can still attend a season’s games and help pay for the Sandusky fallout damage, but the consequences of putting football first has a defined consequence.

  • Matt712

    If Congress is any kind of model for bringing important issues to swift and decisive conclusions, then it’s pretty easy to understand why the NCAA is choosing to be a Monarchy instead of a Democracy. Problem is, it has no business being either when it’s nothing more than a thinly veiled publicly subsidized corporation, now making an ‘example’ out of a culture that it
    both created and sustains.

    As if we all need to be told just how bad it is to rape children. Really? Some things are more important than sports?! Really??!! We had no idea!! Thank you, NCAA. Thank you for yet another important moral lesson.

    • Artthiel

       Matt, this is the first time that really damaging consequences have been handed out for universities who indulge the football-first syndrome, which would include every Pac-12 school. It also holds executives accountable, which while an easy call in the his horrible case, nevertheless has never been done.

  • Matt712

    If Congress is any kind of model for bringing important issues to swift and decisive conclusions, then it’s pretty easy to understand why the NCAA is choosing to be a Monarchy instead of a Democracy. Problem is, it has no business being either when it’s nothing more than a thinly veiled publicly subsidized corporation, now making an ‘example’ out of a culture that it
    both created and sustains.

    As if we all need to be told just how bad it is to rape children. Really? Some things are more important than sports?! Really??!! We had no idea!! Thank you, NCAA. Thank you for yet another important moral lesson.

    • Artthiel

       Matt, this is the first time that really damaging consequences have been handed out for universities who indulge the football-first syndrome, which would include every Pac-12 school. It also holds executives accountable, which while an easy call in the his horrible case, nevertheless has never been done.

  • maoling

    Art,

    Really a thought-provoking column. If you were the Grand Poobah of the NCAA, how would you have handled this unprecedented situation? Would you have waited until it ran through the courts or imposed different penalties? Never seen a situation like this regarding college athletics, and would be interested in how you would play it. 

  • maoling

    Art,

    Really a thought-provoking column. If you were the Grand Poobah of the NCAA, how would you have handled this unprecedented situation? Would you have waited until it ran through the courts or imposed different penalties? Never seen a situation like this regarding college athletics, and would be interested in how you would play it.