Monday, July 23, 2012

Crime and Punishment

Well the hammer has been dropped.  Penn State faces massive sanctions from the NCAA, and while most people are avoiding use of the term "death penalty", PSU is going to be set back as a football contender for quite some time.

First, a couple thoughts on that:

1) ESPN's 30 for 30 series did an episode on SMU's receipt of the death penalty, and discussed (even showed) how other schools' coaches descended on campus like a flock of vultures to snap up talented players as a result of lifted transfer restrictions.  So [a] it will probably happen again, and [b] let's not wax too poetic in our concern for the current crop of players

2) PSU will eventually bounce back.  There are key differences between PSU and SMU, namely that one is a public university that operates as a state flagship while the other was a private institution, founded by the Methodist Church.  SMU was never one of the biggest schools in its state, being dwarfed in physical size and enrollment by the University of Texas and Texas A&M.  Penn State has a deeper history, a larger alumni base, and tuition rates that are roughly half of SMU's.  Why is that important?  Between state pride, family history, and Penn State being twice as affordable they should have an easier time finding players that could be motivated to attend without receiving a scholarship.  SMU's rise to prominence was due to the activities that got them sanctioned.  PSU's history of athletic success is separate from the events that led to their sanctions.

Now onto what I really want to talk about: whether this was a legitimate exercise of power by the NCAA.

In my post yesterday I already discussed my issue with the curtailing of NCAA standard due process.  I still stand by everything I said there, but that being said, I do support the NCAA handing down sanctions.  The particular sanctions in this case may border on moronic at times.

Vacating wins?  As blog overlord Craig points out, did they just vacate this blog post of Craig live-blogging a game between Penn State and Illinois? I mean, fans who watched those games did not just have their memories wiped like a Philip K. Dick protagonist.  Though this may affect Joe Pa's inclusion on the all-time wins list, and I'm okay with that.  If CBS doesn't put him up there at all, rather than put him up there with an asterisk, I think it's no less than his legacy deserves.

Reduction in scholarships?  This arguably punishes players more than the school.  My responses:  [a] see point (1) above about other schools picking up players.  [b] It's hard to imagine almost any punishment that could be both effective and not impact negatively on players.  I agree that any reduction in any one school's available scholarships is a loss to affordable education at large, and going forward I would like to see some kind of system in place where scholarships lost to one athletic program as a result of its malfeasance maybe simply shift elsewhere.  As Craig pointed out yesterday, Title IX opponents love to cite college wrestling as a casualty.  Well, why couldn't we shift those 10 scholarships a year over to create a wrestling team?  (This is an honest question in that I don't actually know the mechanics of Title IX and NCAA scholarships).

The fines and bowl bans I am utterly fine with.  Ultimately those hit the university where it counts: the wallet.  Football got to be king on the basis of the money it brings in.  A school could have the best water polo team in the country, but that coach won't get paid more than the university president, nor have more power.  It all comes down to money.  However a one time fine, no matter how high, wouldn't be sufficient.  The university could swallow its medicine, cut a check, and go right back to hitting up boosters for donations.  A bowl ban not only costs money, it costs prestige, which down the line costs even more money.

Now, ESPN is also reporting that a former infraction committee chair is calling into question the legitimacy of the NCAA's actions here in basically policing bad/criminal behavior, and not just behavior that impacts the competition on the field.

To that I say: so what.  Again, while I think the NCAA should stand by its normal due process, it's a separate argument to say they have a moral or professional duty to "stay out of it".  Isn't that what got us here to begin with?  The idea that "what happens on the field and what happens off the field never shall meet" is precisely why Penn State's in this position.  Furthermore, if the NCAA does nothing to Penn State after levying sanctions against Ohio State for players selling jerseys, or USC for Reggie Bush's family receiving gifts, then aren't they tacitly adopting a position that players making extra cash on the side is somehow worse for college athletics than coaches and school officials actively concealing heinous crimes?

Whether or not college players should be paid is a separate issue that we've already addressed and will probably return to at some point, but I will gladly stake out my position that player compensation ranks lower on the scale of moral reprehensibility than active concealment of child abuse.  Whatever the penalties levied, whatever process arrived at those penalties, I stand firmly in support of the idea that the NCAA had a moral obligation to address this issue, that their legitimacy would in fact be more damaged by sticking their head in the sand and saying "as long as no students got some extra cash in their pockets, it's not our problem."

There is still a legitimacy problem, though, in that ultimately the NCAA is a private organization, and it just took unprecedented action to harm the financial status of a public institution.  The people of Penn State voted to endow a public university, and they continue to support it through taxes.  Now a private board they had no democratic stake in has stepped in to cripple that institution.  Penn State answers to Pennsylvania taxpayers, but the NCAA does not.  The NCAA barely answers to Congress and had at least two Supreme Court Justices feeling it doesn't answer to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.

The NCAA, in theory, operates on the consent of the governed, but it is still a private body that is wielding powers akin to a sovereign, and doing so over institutions that are otherwise, at least partly, publicly financed.  That it did so in this case in contradiction of its own due process makes it even more disturbing, but I have a feeling that point will get lost in the discussion of the impact on Penn State specifically.  The Freeh Report was our answer to how Penn State got here, the NCAA just told us where Penn State is headed.  But as the dust clears maybe it's time for Congress to ask how the NCAA got here, and where it is headed.

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