Why the NCAA's Sanctions on Penn State Are Just Dead Wrong

At 9:00 am on Monday, a crime took place masquerading as a farce. NCAA President Mark Emmert, a man who in 2010 called Joe Paterno “the definitive role model of what it means to be a college coach,” levied a series of unprecedented sanctions against the football program Paterno built, the Penn State Nittany Lions. Emmert determined that the entire program had to suffer because of the role the late Coach Paterno, along with other leading school officials, played in covering the tracks of serial pedophile Jerry Sandusky. That collective suffering will mean a $60 million fine, a four-year post-season ban and the vacating of all wins from 1998–2011. He said piously, “Programs and individuals must not overwhelm the values of higher education.” It’s not “the death penalty,” also known as the end of the football program, but it’s life without the possibility of parole.

Emmert sounds righteous. He’s also dead wrong. His decision will of course gut Penn State athletics. It will also create a siege mentality among PSU alumni causing a rush of donations that, I bet, will make up the difference in a week. It’s a farcical public relations move that distracts the public from actually holding to account those responsible for protecting Sandusky. Former FBI director Louis Freeh had said that the root of the problem was the “culture of reverence” for football. Penn State did more to confront this culture of reverence by taking down their statue of Joe Paterno on Sunday than Mark Emmert did today. If anything, Emmert strengthened that culture of reverence by choosing to grab the spotlight and bathe the NCAA in its saintly glow. But that’s not the only reason Mark Emmert’s decision should be opposed. That’s just the farce. We also have the crime.

Monday marked a stomach-turning, precedent-setting and lawless turning point in the history of the NCAA. The punishment levied by Emmert was nothing less than an extra-legal, extrajudicial imposition into the affairs of a publicly funded campus. If allowed to stand, the repercussions will be felt far beyond Happy Valley.

Take a step back from the hysteria and just think about what took place: Penn State committed no violations of any NCAA bylaws. There were no secret payments to “student-athletes,” no cheating on tests, no improper phone calls, no using cream cheese instead of butter on a recruit’s bagel, or any of the Byzantine minutiae that fills the time-sheets that justify Mark Emmert’s $1.6 million salary.

What Penn State did was commit horrific violations of criminal and civil laws, and it should pay every possible price for shielding Sandusky, the child rapist. This is why we have a society with civil and criminal courts. Instead, we have Mark Emmert inserting himself in a criminal matter and acting as judge, jury and executioner, in the style of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. As much as I can’t stand Goodell’s authoritarian, undemocratic methods, the NFL is a private corporation and his method of punishment was collectively bargained with the NFL Players Association. Emmert, heading up the so-called nonprofit NCAA, is intervening with his own personal judgment and cutting the budget of a public university. He has no right, and every

school under the auspices of the NCAA should be terrified that he believes he does.

Speaking anonymously to ESPN, a former prominent NCAA official said, “This is unique and this kind of power has never been tested or tried. It’s unprecedented to have this extensive power. This has nothing to do with the purpose of the infractions process. Nevertheless, somehow [the NCAA president and executive board] have taken it on themselves to be a commissioner and to penalize a school for improper conduct.”

Emmert justifies this by saying Penn State “lost institutional control” of the football program. Tragically, the opposite is the case here. There was so much control a serial child rapist was able to have his tracks covered for—at least—thirteen years. He is instead using this canard of “institutional control” to justify an abrogation of public budgets, public universities and, most critically, public oversight.

Or as Yahoo! Sports’ Pat Forde said succinctly, “Emmert seems determined to go where no NCAA president has gone before.” 

The discussion we should be having is how to organize the outrage of the Penn State campus and the people of Pennsylvania to expel the entire Board of Trustees. Just as the statue of Coach Paterno came tumbling down in the name of turning the page at Penn State, the board should follow. We should be talking about how to push for a full investigation of Governor Tom Corbett and his own extra-slow- motion investigation of Sandusky when he was the state’s attorney general. Former Governor Ed Rendell, as a board trustee during Sandusky’s continued presence on campus, should be subpoenaed as well. But instead, we get the maiming of Penn State’s athletic budget for the grand purpose of turning Mark Emmert and the NCAA into something they have no legal right to be. Private, unaccountable actors have no business cutting the budgets of a public campus. Today’s move by Emmert didn’t bring justice to any of Sandusky’s victims. It didn’t help clean house at Penn State. Instead it was extra-legal, extrajudicial and stinks to high heaven.

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Penn state

I worry that the debate is being controlled by too many self-anointed un-credentialed proletariat pundits who have internet data of limited credibility, some knowledge, no training, no skill, no patience, and as a consequence no perspective from which wisdom may be gleaned.

When we each find ourselves in a dither about something for which there is great emotional impact, it seems to me that it would be prudent to slow down the retribution machine. Have we all forgotten the horrible consequences heaped on the assistant district attorney in the Tawana Brawley case and the unfortunate three lacrosse players at Duke University?

The very standard to which Mr. Paturno is being held, is the very standard ignored by his condemnors. No one is blameless in this world. This applies to the leadership of the NCAA as well. “No man is so exquisitely honest or upright in living, but that ten times in his life he might not lawfully be hanged.” - Michel Eyquem de Montaigne

Speaking of the NCAA, the following comes to mind: “Distrust everyone in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.” Nietzsche

I am also worried about rewarding the “victim rights” groups for their “waving the bloody shirt” on the internet and in the press. If a fine is paid to the NCAA, all the money should go into a fund for these victims, not unlike the BP fund in the Gulf of Mexico. The same for any Big Ten Money. The trade off for the “not for profits” should be that they should not profit from the suffering of the victims. Traditionally an enormous percent of a not-for-profits’ money goes to administration expenses, including salaries. There is a certain hypocrisy and conflict of interest to give the money to the not-for-profits and not directly to the victims.

Yes, It Stinks

“Programs and individuals must not overwhelm the values of higher education.”

Blah, blah, blah. Ugh! I mean how much longer do we have to put up with the charade of the NCAA? It's not an educational organization. It is in practice a for profit sports entertainment organization. It just so happens to use universities as settings for the products, uncompensated athletes in revenue generating sports on campus, it sells to make a lot of money.

I'm all for the death penalty for the NCAA.


That was the least serious crime committed at 9 am on Monday in the entire world


I like the fact that the greatest injustices in America just happened to be two Black women who accused white men of rape. As a Black man I shed a tear for all of the institutional racism whites must endure.

Victims Rights Advocates

I don't think it's entirely bad that there are non-profits that have salaried staff to do the hard work needed to advocate for these victims. I volunteer with a local group, and those staff people sure don't get paid very much to do a pretty demanding and, honestly, rather thankless job. Creating a culture where child sexual abuse is not tolerated or covered up or ignored takes a lot of heavy lifting; it seems we see time and time again, unfortunately, that our society is NOT willing to do that heavy lifting. But it certainly is not the job of the victims to do this advocacy; some may want to, and others may want the rest of us to do that work. And while the general community can and needs to do a lot to stop this kind of abuse, it helps to have some sort of organized structure that requires skilled people doing a full-time job to direct that community effort. And I think it's okay those people get paid for it.

I understand that there can be a non-profit industrial complex, and some segments of the non-profit world suffer from that. But when I think of who has been profiting on the backs of victims of child sexual abuse, it generally doesn't seem to be the advocates, particularly in this instance. So definitely be careful where you give your money (I can envision many scam artists taking advantage of this), but you may also want to talk to your local agenices about other ways you can help their work - they'd probably appreciate it.

Extending the argument...

Dave, you are spot on here. I've extending your argument by characterizing the NCAA as an empire. My blog post can be found here: theagon.blogspot.com

Head scratcher?

Dave- I'm puzzled. If the NCAA and Mark Emmert have no legal right to fine Penn State, why is PSU paying?

Paul Silvan- What are you saying, no one should be punished until their 11th crime? The jails are full of people who had one moment of indiscretion or loss of control and committed horrific crimes. Truth is, one bad moment or incident can wipe out a lifetime of good work (ask O.J.). Not that this applies to Joe Pa because there seems to be a few skeletons in that closet.

nothing is too much in the face of this monstrous act, and then cover up

Penn state leavaraged it's name on whatever Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky did on the football field ( seems to be a college should be about more then what is done on a football field, but that is a diatribe for another day) So it is only fair that Penn State Fottball gets the death penality on runing the lives of so many children, and "Joe Pa" is just as guilty his non action is what kept this scandel going.

And to Dave Zirin I know you are a liberal. Nothing wrong with that, I'm pretty liberal myself. And you might have a good point now and then, but your articles always seem like such a reach of you trying to find your political bent, at the expanse of your article.

Not So Bad

I agree in general that the NCAA has plenty of flaws and I'm all for discussions on how to improve it. However, here is not one of those examples. I don't blame Penn State for any of Sandusky's crimes before they knew about it. But once they turned their collective heads and ignored the sexual predator of young boys on their campus, they became very very guilty.

This was about the most serious transgression I've ever seen from an athletic program. Paying players or enabling molesation, which is more serious? It's no contest. What happened at SMU pales in comparison to what happened here. This entire fiasco was centered and prolonged by the football and university leadership's inaction. It was done all to preserve the golden goose football program. They no longer deserve that program.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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