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It's Time for an NCAA Ombudsman

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JERRY SANDUSKY JUDGE
AP

If now isn't the time for an independent investigative body to be set up by the NCAA to monitor all of its member schools, when is?

The tragedy of the alleged raping and molesting of young boys at the hands of a Penn State Football coach -- and the aftermath of turning a blind eye to it -- stands out singularly as the sickest college sports scandal of all time. But, the thinking (or lack thereof) behind those who failed to report the sexual assaults, or brushed it under the rug, is endemic in college sports. Specifically, a lower level person with knowledge of the scandal doesn't want to be seen as the person bringing the athletic program down, and the higher ups don't want to do anything to jeopardize wins, or more importantly, money.

Whether it was the Fab Five of Michigan getting illegal payments and gifts, booster benefits for University of Miami football players, or the most recent scandal with Ohio State football, the pattern always seems to be clear -- someone knew something and didn't tell, or did tell and the higher ups didn't do much about it. In the end, most scandals take years to be uncovered. It was, frankly, only a matter of time before something much more depraved, and injurious to innocent people fell into this pattern.

What makes this case different is that Assistant Coach Mike McQueary could have, and should have, felt that he could report what he saw to police and have his anonymity protected, assuming he feared some kind of retribution if he took this outside of the program. Why did he, then, only go to Joe Paterno, Athletic Director Curley, and administrator Gary Schultz?

We will have to see what he says, but I suspect that, in part, he feared the far reach of the university dipped into the police department. So, better to be a "team player" and tell the head coach, rather than go behind his back to tell the cops, and have some source in the police department tell coaches that it was McQueary "ratted out" Jerry Sandusky. I imagine this would be a fear for other assistants, if they faced a similar situation in a college town. It's not an excuse to not go to police, by any means, but one can certainly see the thought pattern.

Clearly, schools cannot be trusted to police themselves -- especially when it comes to the cash cow of student athletics. While some universities have Ombudsmen, the independence and authority of them varies greatly. At Penn State, for example, the Ombudsman is a professor, paid by the University, who trains other Ombudsmen at schools and satellite campuses, who are also university employees. As long as their paychecks are signed by the school, they are not independent. As long as they're not independent and can't truly guarantee anonymity, or run a real investigation, there's no incentive for someone like McQueary to go to them, either. At my Alma Mater, Syracuse University, I can't find any evidence that there is even an Ombudsman's office, at all.

And the NCAA? Forget about it. With so much money at stake, they have every incentive to try to stave off scandals as much as possible. While the NCAA does have an infractions committee, it is barely independent, and only undertakes investigations at the NCAA's command.

It's time for a truly independent body to be established, to police NCAA schools with full authority and independence.

With one lump-sum payment from the NCAA to set up the body, and mandatory payments from member schools to keep it running, this Office of the NCAA Ombudsman would be responsible for investigating any and all claims brought to it, and guaranteeing the absolute, complete anonymity of its sources. The Ombudsman him or herself would be hired by an executive search firm -- not by the NCAA -- and once established, would make his or her own hiring and firing decisions. The office should be given enough money to hire a decent number of regional investigators (possibly one in each state), who would act as a point of first contact for anyone within his or her region. This investigator would have authority over any college or university's athletics program within his or her jurisdiction, and full access to anything he or she needs to verify or dispel charges brought to the office's attention. If member schools don't like that, then they can leave the NCAA, and take the major PR hit of not wanting to be kept honest.

At the end of any investigation, the Office of the Ombudsman would release a full report on findings, with recommendations for punishment. This report and its recommendations would be made public at the time it is turned over to the NCAA and the school investigated. This would put pressure on the NCAA and the school to accept the recommendations for punishment, or try to explain why it thinks a school's program deserves more of a slap on the wrist.

Most importantly, if charges brought to the investigator's attention involve any crimes like those at Penn State, or if the investigator uncovers any crimes, he or she would be mandated to immediately bring it to the attention of law enforcement -- and not wait until he or she investigates and issues a report. If local cops aren't being as responsive as they should, the investigator could bring the case to Federal law enforcement.

In the end, this is the only way to ensure that schools, their coaches and staff, and the NCAA know that they have nowhere to hide if they do wrong. It's the best way to give people with knowledge of a scandal who want to do the right thing a place to go where they don't have to fear being exposed and/or face retribution. I can't know for sure, but maybe Mike McQueary would have gone to the NCAA Ombudsman's office, if there was one, instead of Coach Paterno, and law enforcement and courts could have apprehended, charged, convicted, and jailed Jerry Sandusky years ago.

Unfortunately, no one can ever guarantee that there will be no more college sports scandals. But, it is far past time to make sure that those with the most to lose are no longer left to police themselves.

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