NCAA’s Sanctions on Penn State Are Hypocritical

If President Mark Emmert really wants to change sports culture, he needs to start within his own organization.

It doesn’t matter whether you are a Penn State fan or not, watching the announcement of the NCAA’s substantial penalties against the Nittany Lion football program should have made you sick to your stomach.

NCAA president Mark Emmert used words like “unprecedented” and “egregious” to describe the despicable actions of former PSU coach Jerry Sandusky and the institutional cover-up of his behavior, and he was correct to do that. Sandusky and those who enabled him engaged in behavior that no one could have imagined. Emmert’s adjectives also describe the sanctions levied against the program. The NCAA hit Penn State harder than an unblocked blitzing linebacker tears into a quarterback. The penalties, like the scandal, were indeed unprecedented.

But most of all, they were stunningly hypocritical.

Hearing the NCAA president talk about “maintaining an appropriate balance of values” was almost laughable, because the entire big-time athletic world is ridiculously out of balance. If Emmert, the NCAA Executive Committee and the Division I Board are serious about the high and mighty stance they took in whacking Penn State Monday, then they had better get to work, because Happy Valley isn’t the only place in need of reform.

During the press conference, Oregon State president Dr. Edward Ray described the great desire to affect reform displayed by presidents and chancellors at a meeting held last year. He earnestly talked about their “resolve” and said “We’ve had enough,” a statement that should have induced more laughs than a punch line on The Big Bang Theory. Had enough? Please. All over the country, football programs operate outside of the university community and are asked to play huge roles in fundraising, image building and the generation of admissions applications at schools. Coaches are paid far more than even the most accomplished professor. Players are often funneled into programs of study that will not serve them in the job market after the completion of their eligibility. And presidents like Ray let it all happen, the better to promote the university.

The idea that administrators are interested in trying to “reassert [their] responsibility” in terms of intercollegiate athletics is hilarious. They are doing nothing to stop the runaway culture that makes college football an enterprise that is more and more like the NFL every day. Programs are trying to generate funds in order to build bigger and more opulent facilities. They are engaging sponsors in agreements that are as sophisticated as any in professional sports. And with the new four-team “playoff” that will begin during the 2014 season, there will be an even greater rush to the cash register as college football programs offer up the championship game to the highest bidder.

How dare the NCAA try to make it seem as if it is in the process of bringing big-time athletics under control? For decades, the NCAA has allowed college football to get bigger and more out of control. While the Penn State situation is indeed like no other ever encountered, hearing Emmert and Ray pontificate about the need to create a culture that eliminates hero worship and creates integrity was nausea inducing. The NCAA acted without conducting an investigation–Emmert said the report completed by former FBI head Louis Freeh was more exhausting than anything the organization could have completed–and brought down its sanctions in an extremely short timeframe, especially compared to its usual, tortoise-like pace. It talked about the evidence revealed in the Freeh Report but failed to disclose exactly what NCAA rules were violated.

If you have read anything I have written since last November, you will know that I am in favor of a rebooting of the athletic culture at Penn State, the better to prevent the football program from ever having the undue influence it wielded during the last years of Joe Paterno’s tenure as head coach. I went so far as to call for a one-year hiatus, a de-emphasis of football at the school and the elimination of the PSU athletic department. And I stand by all of that.

But the idea that Emmert and the rest of the NCAA are on a mission to return integrity to big-time college athletics simply because it took measures against one school is preposterous. One look at its signature event, the Division I men’s basketball tournament proves that. Players are removed from the classroom, shipped all over the country and scheduled for games at times determined by television networks. They reap none of the income from the broadcast contracts and are for all intents and purposes performers in an athletic circus designed to satisfy sponsors and TV partners. The business of big-time college sports and the missions of academic institutions are mutually exclusive pursuits. For the NCAA to imply otherwise is dead wrong.

So, it’s time for Emmert and his fellow crusaders to get to work cleaning up the sausage factory that is big-time athletics. No longer can coaches receive seven-figure annual salaries while academic budgets are being sliced. There will be an end to any competitive requirements that force athletes to miss class time or sacrifice their studies. Gigantic practice facilities will be outlawed. So will athletic dormitories. Institutions will administer athletics within the framework of the schools themselves, rather than allowing them to operate as adjunct entities. If Emmert is as serious about reform as he wants us to believe, then he should institute some real changes.

Penn State deserves to suffer for its sins but not at the hands of an organization that talks tough but refuses to follow through with universal reforms that will change the culture of big-time athletics. For Emmert to be taken seriously, he must start looking at what the NCAA has allowed to develop. End the madness, Mr. President, and then we can believe that you and your cronies care about the education of athletes and the kind of integrity that Penn State lost as it covered up the Sandusky scandal.

Here’s a big bet that you don’t have the guts to do it.


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