I have argued for some time that the NCAA President should have more power to do what is in "the best interest of the game". For example, I have said that I want the President to step in and punish John Calipari, since the fact that he always manages to flee schools before he can be directly implicated in any of the shadiness that happens at programs he runs doesn't change the fact that he should be responsible for what his players and coaches do. But as awful as what happened at Penn State was, I think that the power the NCAA has grabbed sets a really dangerous precedent.
While I very much acknowledge that what happened at Penn State is still in doubt, and we might find out at the trials of Tim Curley and Gary Schultz that something different happened, let's assume for the sake of argument that the worst possible scenario happened - that the leadership at Penn State knew that child abuse was going on and they participated in a cover up. And let's assume that it's okay that the NCAA has completely skipped the investigation and review process, completely skipped the appeal process and rushed through a "for the good of the game" punishment for the first time ever. Even if that's all true, I still don't see how the NCAA has any jurisdiction here.
NCAA stands for "National Collegiate Athletic Association", and I'll put an emphasis on the words collegiate athletics. The NCAA runs athletic competitions, and has rules designed to prevent unfair athletic advantages (such as paying players, or contacting potential recruits outside of approved dates and mediums). Crimes like murder and rape are not against NCAA rules - those are simply not NCAA violations. If somebody commits rape, or participates in a conspiracy to cover up a rape, then their punishment is to be meted out by the criminal justice system. Jerry Sandusky is in jail for the rest of his life, while Tim Curley and Gary Schultz have their own trials coming up. Graham Spanier is out of a job and will probably be sued (as will the university) in future civil litigation filed by the families of the victims.
There's a reason why we have a legal system with very clear rules and restrictions. When we all found out what Jerry Sandusky did we were all outraged. Yet when I saw people outraged at his lawyers, or outraged that his lawyers were cross-examining witnesses in trials, I was also saddened. As angry as we are at what he did, our legal system guarantees the rights of even the most despicable criminal to defend themselves. Every defendant has the right to a lawyer. We don't just string people up in the town square - we have a jury system that allows Sandusky every chance to argue his innocence. And we could all be happy with the end result, which was Sandusky being found guilty on 45 counts and sent off to prison for the rest of his life. And we could all be happy that no power was abused, and the trial was performed according to the rules in place.
I've seen arguments that somehow the stain of having a former coach be a rapist therefore meant that the university sports programs benefit in some way from the cover-up, but that's a vague accusation with no clear definition. By that logic, can we go back and punish Duke for the institutional failures involved in the lacrosse rape case a few years back? Can we go back and punish ACC and SEC teams for discriminating against African-American athletes in the 1960s and earlier? Once you set the precedent that the NCAA is getting involved in issues that aren't directly related to competitive advantage, you open a Pandora's Box of possibilities.
The NCAA is trying to argue that this is a one-time-only situation, and they won't mete out a punishment like this again. And certainly it's true that the intense media pressure to "just do something!" was the reason for punishments that, in my opinion, were not particularly well thought out. For example, why would they take away Penn State wins going back to 1998? Even the worst possible interpretation of what happened at Penn State is that the cover-up began in 2001. The 1998 rape accusation was investigated by police and Sandusky was found innocent... what exactly was Penn State supposed to have done about Sandusky between 1998 and 2001? The punishment, if there's any logic to what is going on here, should start in 2001 - not 1998.
But I don't buy that argument. We didn't get to decide that Jerry Sandusky wouldn't be afforded the right to a fair trial because we were really angry about what happened, and the NCAA shouldn't get to decide to be involved in criminal matters just because the media is pressuring them to.
As an aside, I thought we had all agreed that we hated the fact that the NCAA punished schools and future coaches/players for past rule breaking rather than the rule-breakers themselves. That Pete Carroll and Reggie Bush were able to get away scot-free while future USC football players who did nothing wrong had to face a punishment. Well, in the case of Penn State, the people who did wrong are being punished - by the actual legal authorities. Sandusky is in jail for the rest of his life, while Curley, Spanier and Schultz will all be spending a lot of their future years in courtrooms if not in jail. And Paterno would have been a part of those lawsuits as well if he had not died (it's still possible that his estate will be included in future civil trials). So those people are being punished. Who is benefiting by making Penn State a non-competitive football program over the next 5+ years? Does it make families of the victims feel any better? Does anybody believe that this action will dissuade future bad behavior - that a person like Tim Curley is going to be more worried about future scholarship reductions than potential jail time? It just doesn't make sense to me.
I understand that we're all really angry at what happened at Penn State. But that's why we have rules and laws in place, so that we can take emotion out of the decision and think about what we're actually doing. And the precedent here is just not a good one. Let's punish the people who did something wrong, and let's try to help the victims. I don't see how what the NCAA did to Penn State helped in either respect. That's why we should leave criminal law to the police and the court system, and leave athletic cheating to the NCAA.