A 1906 magazine cover spoofing the role of football on college campuses
  • Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
  • A 1906 magazine cover spoofing the role of football on college campuses

Monday’s announcement of the NCAA’s “unprecedented” penalties against Penn State’s football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal has generally drawn praise from pundits inside and outside the sports world. The NCAA hit the football program hard with its postseason ban and scholarship reductions, and set a clear goal of cultural and institutional change at Penn State.

The sanction also hit Penn State fans where it hurts—in the heart—by vacating all football wins since 1998 and dethroning Joe Paterno as the sport’s winningest coach. The sour feeling expressed by some Carolina fans after the football problems in Chapel Hill led two seasons to be vacated has been multiplied seven times over in (not-so) Happy Valley.

Nonetheless, some observers remain skeptical or uncomfortable with the NCAA’s actions. One of the most virulent arguments was forwarded by columnist Dave Zirin of Edge of Sports and The Nation fame, who called the NCAA’s actions a “crime…masquerading as a farce.”

I’ll put my cards on the table: I think the Penn State ruling was the most welcome, promising and appropriate move by an NCAA President in decades. It sent an unmistakable message that the football culture at Penn State must change permanently, and it sent a clear warning to other institutions where sports and coaches have become too big and powerful to challenge.
Here are four unpersuasive arguments forwarded by critics of the decision.

1. The NCAA didn’t have the authority to take this action.

This argument is plainly false. The NCAA is a voluntary association whose members agree to abide by the rules and policies of the association in exchange for the benefits of participating in NCAA-sponsored competition. Penn State did not and does not have to be part of the NCAA, but if it is, it must accept the NCAA’s authority to impose sanctions (as it in fact has). While the NCAA’s methods in this case are a departure from usual practice, they fall comfortably within the organization’s own constitutions and by-laws. To cut to the chase, the Sandusky scandal caused damaged not just to Penn State but to college sports in general and to the other member institutions. It’s entirely appropriate that a price be paid for such blatant violations of basic ethical standards and common decency.

2. Collective punishment is wrong—why penalize players who had nothing to do with it?

There are two arguments in this thought. One is an argument that the football program at Penn State really isn’t responsible for what happened, and that fault lies with the key decision makers at Penn State. That argument in my view completely misses the point of what the Freeh Report demonstrated: that administrators made the decisions they did precisely out of deference to Joe Paterno’s exalted football program. The fact that the football program had gotten too big was a causal factor in the inaction of the university leaders. Also relevant are the unpleasant facts that Sandusky traded in on his relationship with Penn State football to take advantage of his victims and that he used university facilities to abuse children years after he was initially suspected as a pedophile.

The second part of the argument claims that collective punishment is always morally suspect and that individuals who had nothing to do with Sandusky are now going to have costs imposed on them. This is not persuasive either. Under this reasoning, government should never impose stiff penalties on corporations that break the law because it might lead some innocent employees to lose their jobs as a byproduct. I doubt Zirin or other leftists really want to take that position. Nor do we normally excuse rapists and murderers from prison time even though sending the convicted to prison imposes substantial costs on innocent people such as spouses and children. Punishment of the guilty imposes collateral damage on the innocent; that is a fact of life in a complex society.

More generally, the key point in this case is that those persons harmed by the ruling are not being punished as individuals; the NCAA did not impose a $500 fine on all Athletic Department employees or anything of that sort. Any harm is a result of the fact of their association with the institution, an institution they are free to leave or break ties with. When an institution’s practices and culture have abetted serious crimes, punitive action is justified. Looking not just at the scholarship losses and fine but the entire range of the NCAA’s actions, the goal clearly is to force and facilitate serious institutional and cultural change at Penn State. At the same time, the NCAA has, properly, bent over backward to minimize the harm on current players by giving them the right to transfer and play immediately elsewhere if they choose. As Joe Nocera says, the issue of why players aren’t ordinarily allowed to do this is a question for another day. To say the NCAA should refrain from punitive action directed at institutions in order to spare anyone associated with the institution from experiencing harm is both to misunderstand life in a complex society and tantamount to saying institutional reform can never be justified.

3.The NCAA is grandstanding; the punishments meted out on Penn State won’t really prevent child abuse or future Sandusky scenarios from emerging.

This argument is also unconvincing. Most obviously, Penn State is being required to donate $60 million to an endowment supporting work against child sexual abuse. Less obvious to those not familiar with the internal workings of universities is the ripple impact the NCAA’s ruling will have on universities throughout the nation. Every Division I college president in the nation Monday, if they hadn’t already, was contacting their university counsel or other top officials about how to be sure their institution won’t be the next Penn State. To be sure, concern for reputation and self-protection in part drives that questioning, but it opens the door to broader questions about the excessive power of sports within the universities on campuses throughout the nation. As those questions are raised, those who favor institutional and cultural reform at places other than Penn State will have an opportunity to ask hard questions: could Penn State have happened here? Are we confident the janitors at our school feel comfortable reporting a crime even if it means implicating powerful people in athletics? In the wake of Monday’s ruling, presidents and sometimes recalcitrant administrators will have no choice but to address those questions.

4.The NCAA doesn’t have moral standing to mete out punishment or to engage in pious talk about “values.”

Two points in response: First, it is a fact that the NCAA is the only body that can penalize a college’s athletic program. If you thought Penn State’s athletic program should be punished and/or reformed, there’s nowhere else to go but the NCAA to do that work. Second, while it is true that the NCAA has a long-standing credibility problem with respect to standing up for ethics and values, that problem stems from the NCAA leadership traditionally being too weak, not too strong. NCAA Presidents have not, until now, been willing to challenge the big boys who dominate college football or to impose serious sanctions on its most prominent institutions.

Mark Emmert’s willingness to act dramatically against Penn State shows the organization is not toothless, and it might signal even bolder action in the future. Here are two obvious reform targets Emmert could pursue: stop cheating in its tracks by imposing a lifetime ban on head coaches whose programs go on major probation; and get control of college football and end conference expansion insanity by breaking up the bowl/BCS cartel and instituting an NCAA-administered playoff in football that (as in basketball) guarantees a berth to all recognized conferences.

Emmert is not likely to take such steps without public pressure. But the Penn State case shows that when pressure is high enough, the NCAA under Emmert is willing to take bold steps. Further, Emmert’s invocation of values in justifying the penalties creates a standard that can be cited by reformers pushing for additional bold actions. The Penn State ruling does not in itself indicate that wholesale reform of college sports is around the corner. But Emmert’s re-assertion of the NCAA’s authority does set a precedent for future action, and does send a clear message that his NCAA is not messing around.

5. The NCAA is hypocritical—it criticizes hero worship at Penn State, but is itself part of the problem.

This sort of criticism of Monday’s ruling is largely persuasive—but does not lead to the conclusion that the Penn State ruling was unjustified. Yes, the NCAA is hypocritical: it has consistently prioritized maximizing TV revenue over other concerns, it has failed to rein in the big boys in college football and basketball, it has failed to protect the interests of student-athletes (though Emmert has endorsed important reforms in this area), and it also has lionized successful coaches.

But as the saying goes, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. It’s much better to have the NCAA re-asserting values that it does not succeed in honoring than to give up on upholding ethical standards altogether. Extraordinary as the circumstances were, it’s a big deal for an NCAA President to stand up and say that hero worship is out and that college football got too big at Penn State. The logical implication is that if it was too big at Penn State, it was and is too big at many other places too. And the logical implication of that thought is the NCAA needs to re-examine the structure of college sports it has allowed to evolve in a deeper, more systemic way, rather than treat Penn State as a one-off.

Critics of the NCAA should set aside misplaced criticisms of the Penn State ruling and instead take the opportunity to begin raising the larger questions about the structure of college sports. Emmert is not likely to act on those concerns if the public doesn’t exert pressure to enact real institutional reform. But his decisive actions in the Penn State matter indicate that if such public pressure were to emerge, Emmert would be willing to play ball.