Tuesday, July 10, 2012

NCAA doesn’t need Sandusky scandal to punish Penn State

image Since CNN reported on a series of emails that showed Penn State coach Joe Paterno steered decisions on whether to report knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s monstrous child molestation behavior, a debate has raged: Should the NCAA use its power as the collegiate athletics governing body to investigate and if necessary, punish the university?

CNN upped the ante with another story, this one reminding us of a Wall Street Journal report exploring Paterno’s preference for handling problems outside of the school’s discipline policy and the pressure he applied to school officials who disagreed with him.

Those arguing that the NCAA has no business wading into the Sandusky case over how school officials handled knowledge of his crimes are correct. Sandusky is already convicted and will die in prison. His enablers likely face criminal and civil liability as well. The people who committed and enabled this criminal behavior will be served justice, but the NCAA is not the body that will—or even should—administer it.

However, the NCAA doesn’t need to go near the Sandusky case to find cause for action.

From the November Wall Street Journal story:

In an Aug. 12, 2005, email to Pennsylvania State University President Graham Spanier and others, Vicky Triponey, the university's standards and conduct officer, complained that Mr. Paterno believed she should have "no interest, (or business) holding our football players accountable to our community standards. The Coach is insistent he knows best how to discipline his players…and their status as a student when they commit violations of our standards should NOT be our concern…and I think he was saying we should treat football players different from other students in this regard."
The confrontations came to a head in 2007, according to one former school official, when six football players were charged by police for forcing their way into a campus apartment that April and beating up several students, one of them severely. That September, following a tense meeting with Mr. Paterno over the case, she resigned her post, saying at the time she left because of "philosophical differences."
In a statement Monday, Dr. Triponey said: "There were numerous meetings and discussions about specific and pending student discipline cases that involved football players," which she said included "demands" to adjust the judicial process for football players. The end result, she said, was that football players were treated "more favorably than other students accused of violating the community standards as defined by the student code of conduct."

What this means is that football student-athletes were given preferential treatment, a practice that has led to sanctions for many schools. Protecting football players from a code of conduct and discipline that all other students are subjected to is clearly contrary to NCAA by-laws.

What this also means is that school administrators had a system of institutional control over athletics in place—meaning that the President and his leadership were ostensibly in charge of how the football program conducted itself—and Paterno actively sought to circumvent that system and had Dr. Triponey forced out for not going along with him.

Rather than forcing Paterno to adhere to institutional policy regarding student-athlete discipline matters, Spanier, Curley et al let him run his own show. That is a clear violation of NCAA institutional control policy.

In comments to CBS’ Bruce Feldman, David Ridpath, Assistant Professor of Sports Administration at Ohio University, explained:

“This could definitely be perceived as an extra benefit and yes, it could bootstrap into LOIC (Lack of Institutional Control) without even having to address Sandusky. It would set a precedent, but that is normal for the NCAA. I told a reporter it would have to be something other that Jerry Sandusky -- this is it for the NCAA if they want to do something and it does give them a bit of cover.
“I think the more it is not Jerry Sandusky, the better and they can certainly go this route. The Freeh report will be the tipping point.”
Keep in mind, this wouldn't be the first time the NCAA created a precedent tied to a high-profile case. It did that with both the Reggie Bush and Cam Newton investigations. As I wrote a few weeks back, the NCAA's lists of acts that demonstrate a lack of institutional control are tied to violation of NCAA rules, not real-world crimes -- but the NCAA brass is on record as saying it would be keeping an eye on how things unfolded with the Penn State investigation. Well, now we're getting into the investigation of the culture at Penn State.

Hypothetically speaking, the NCAA would find Penn State officials lacked proper institutional control over the football program. That failure to control led to numerous incidents of student-athletes receiving improper benefits in the form of more favorable disciplinary actions. This in turn created a competitive advantage because players would should be suspended under school policy are allowed to play under those special rules.

The fact that the same lack of institutional control over the athletics program also caused school officials to enable Sandusky’s atrocities is a tragic development, but it is completely coincidental to the NCAA’s case. The judicial system will address the Sandusky scandal. But the Committee on Infractions could—and should—determine whether the school deserves sanctions for how it allowed Paterno to call the shots on almost all things Penn State University, not just football.

Exit Question: Will they? My bet is that ultimately, they do. Failing to conduct a full review and not having the school appear before the Committee would likely cause a public backlash like no other. Most of the public and even some members of the media are incapable of separating the lack of institutional control issue from enabling and protection of Sandusky.

As far as they’re concerned, any and every case arising from Paterno’s last decade or so as coach will always be about Sandusky. To a large segment of these folks, the NCAA has to be seen as having “done something” as the governing body. Triponey’s account of Paterno’s behavior in disciplinary matters unrelated to the Sandusky scandal gives them the route they need and I believe they’ll take it.

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