Monday, July 23, 2012

NCAA Sets A Bad Precedent With Penn State Scandal

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". 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.


DMoore said...

I think there are a number of circumstances here that make this a very reasonable decision.

First, the NCAA used Penn State's own investigation (the Freeh report) as the official findings. The only reason for the NCAA to do its own investigation is if they believe the truth is being hidden. In this case, they looked at the school's findings and said, "That's bad enough -- there's no more reason to dig. You found that the highest officials at your school covered up child molestation to protect your football program."

Second, Sandusky has already been convicted. So, the original crime is not in question. The only question is whether it was covered up. Well, Penn State said it was, and said that the cover up was done by the school president, athletic director, and head football coach.

Third, the reason why this is an NCAA matter is that the crimes were covered up to protect the football program. If you do not punish the program for this, then those officials made the right decision for the school -- the clear lesson would be that covering up criminal activity damaging to a football program would be better for the program than to come clean.

The NCAA is in charge of athletic programs. There is no criminal court for them. I cannot look at what was done, and why, without concluding that this was a crime committed by, and for, the program.

Jeff said...

I understand what you're saying, but how is this any different from the Baylor scandal? In that case a player murdered another player, and the head coach ordered the assistant coaches and the players to declare that the murdered player was a drug dealer in order to intentionally deceive the police. That's equally bad to what happened at Penn State, yet the NCAA didn't give Baylor a single punishment for any of that. Baylor eventually was penalized, but only because the murder investigation found some real NCAA violations (players being paid, etc).

You're asserting that Penn State intentionally covered for Sandusky to protect the football program, but I think that's really not been established at all. Large organizations (corporations, Hollywood, the Church, etc) tend to try to protect their leaders from the scandal because... that's what large organizations do.

And if the argument is that anything done to "protect the image of the school" is therefore "promoting the football team" and therefore under NCAA jurisdiction, where is the line drawn? If some school under-reports the amount of violent crime on campus because they're worried that it will dissuade some students from coming, can that be interpreted by the NCAA as reason to punish the sports programs?

Up until today, the NCAA had never involved itself in issues not directly related to athletic competitive advantage. And I just think this opens a Pandora's Box. Wouldn't they have had to punish Duke after the men's lacrosse scandal? And then what would they have done when it turned out that no rape had happened? Repeal the sanctions? There are just so many problems I see.

DMoore said...

I do want to follow up on question you posted on your Twitter feed:
Doesn't the NCAA have to go back and punish Baylor basketball for covering up a murder?

Help me remember back -- did all of the officials at the school cover up the murder? President, AD, and coach? Or just the basketball coach?

So, did the program cover that up? Or just one coach? If it was the whole program, then you're right, Baylor should have been eviscerated.

Jeff said...

As far as I know, the scandal didn't go above the head coach of the basketball team. But in the Baylor case, the head coach was actually recorded on a phone call telling the assistant coaches that they had to lie to police or else they'd be fired.

In the Penn State it's still unclear just exactly what the wrongdoing was. We all agree that it was wrong of the people involved to not report what they knew to police, but was it because they didn't understand how serious the situation was (i.e. negligence), or did they have a conscious conspiracy to cover up rape? And if so, did the athletic director order everybody else to cover it up? Did Paterno order the AD to cover it up? As far as I know, that's still up for debate. We'll see what happens when Curley and Schultz go to trial.

Jeff said...

By the way, one reason I like to cite the Baylor case is because it brings up another example of the hypocrisy of the NCAA on this. They claim that the punishments are meant to dissuade future athletic departments from doing the same thing, but I doubt that Curley and Schultz are more concerned about future scholarship reductions at a school they're no longer affiliated with than they are about the potential of future jail time.

If they really want to change a "culture" it's the culture of blackballing anybody who speaks up. We don't know precisely why McQueary didn't run to police when he saw what he saw, but it's not inconceivable that he was afraid of being viewed as a "snitch". The assistant coach who broke the Baylor story (the one who recorded the phone conversation where he was ordered to lie to police) was punished for his whistleblowing by being blackballed from college basketball for life. He hasn't been able to get another job in coaching.

If the NCAA really wanted to do something to prevent this from happening in the future, they'd come up with whistleblower protection, like the US federal government has for people who whistleblow about illegal behavior going on at the corporations they work at. Perhaps a fund to write a huge check to anybody who reports a violation like this at their school. That might have made a real difference in the future.