In 1973 the NCAA handed down its first "death penalty," banning the University of Southwest Louisiana (since renamed Louisiana-Lafayette) from competing in basketball for two years for academic and recruiting violations. In 1976, USL was allowed to resume competition after serving its suspension. Not surprisingly, that fall the team's starting lineup consisted of 5 Junior College transferees.
At the time, I was a young instructor of Business Ethics at USL. As a faculty member I also had the role of academic advisor. That December, one of the junior college transfers, ostensibly a business major, came in to register for the spring semester. I will never forget his course selection -- remedial math, remedial English, coaching and weight lifting. I advised him that if he ever intended to earn a degree he would need to enroll in vastly different classes. With that program he would be unlikely to graduate anytime in the 20th century.
The student didn't really understand. He was a very nice but blissfully naïve kid from rural Oklahoma who was clearly in over his head. All he cared about was basketball. He may have fantasized a pro career, but even I knew enough to realize that wasn't in the cards.
Horrified, I went in to discuss his curriculum with my department head. I intended to insist that the student be appropriately counseled, and his program be changed to one that was suitable for a junior business major. I was told in no uncertain terms that altering the student's curriculum would be pointless. If I tried he would simply go back to his coach who would override my changes (apparently he had the power) and reinstate his prior course selection.
According to its website, the NCAA was founded to "protect young people" (presumably student athletes) from "dangerous and exploitive practices." In spite of that, athletes are consistently recruited and exploited for the financial gain they bring to universities, and then summarily discarded when their eligibility expires. If you need proof simply check graduation rates.
Perhaps this isn't such an egregious crime in cases where the athlete goes on to a career in professional sports. But for each of those there are countless more who are dismissed without an education, thoroughly unprepared for life. No one will go to jail for this crime, but that doesn't lessen the ethically bankrupt role big time universities (with the implicit complicity of the NCAA) are playing exploiting these students.
On Monday, the NCAA talked tough handing down unprecedented penalties to the Penn State Football program. But lets look closely at the sanctions and whom is being penalized:
- All football games from 1998 to 2012 will be forfeited. This action penalizes hundreds of dedicated student athletes, all academically eligible, none of whom had anything to do with the scandal.
- The football team will be ineligible for postseason play for the next 4 years. This action penalizes current and future student athletes, none of whom had anything to do with the scandal.
- Penn State University will be fined 60 million. This action penalizes the Pennsylvania taxpayer, none of whom had anything to do with the scandal.
- Scholarships will be dramatically limited and the team's ability to compete greatly reduced for many years to come. This action penalizes students, team supporters and local businesses which depend on revenue from football weekends. None of these parties had anything to do with the scandal.
In football jargon, the NCAA is guilty of 'piling on.' They are not the appropriate institution to mete out punishment in criminal matters. What happened at Penn State is reprehensible -- about that there is no debate. According to the Freeh report there appear to be five primary conspirators -- Sandusky, Paterno, Curley, Schultz and Spanier. Sandusky will spend the rest of his life disgraced in jail. Paterno is dead, his legacy tarnished forever. Curley and Spanier have been humiliated and face the liklihood of jail time. They are being dealt with by the criminal justice system, albeit much too late, the appropriate institution in matters of this kind.
Rahm Emmanuel once famously said "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste," a new standard of cynicism even in this most cynical of times. Piling on is easy. Monday the NCAA made headlines following his mantra. Perhaps they should let the criminal justice system do its job and instead spend more time focused on their mission -- overseeing the integrity of college athletics and insisting that 'student athletes' actually attend class and receive the education they deserve from the member Universities that exploit them.
In no way is this intended to diminish, minimize, defend or excuse any of the actions of those responsible for the unthinkable atrocities that occurred at Penn State. But the sanctimonious action of the NCAA smacks of an institution more interested in protecting its reputation than executing its mission.