In the aftermath of revelations of Jerry Sandusky’s predatory child molestations, the NCAA swiftly entered into a stunning agreement in which it extracted a $60 million fine from Penn State, imposed a ban on its football program from bowl games and post-season play for four years, a reduction in scholarships from 25 to 15 per year for four years, vacated all of the team’s wins from 1998 to 2011, and put it on a five-year probationary period. News reports are unclear about the exact destination of the $60 million fine, but suggest that an endowment will be established to serve victims of child abuse.
In this torrent of outrage, no one seems to be asking some important questions: Why should $60 million of taxpayer and tax deductible donor money from a public school be put into the control of the NCAA? Why should the football team’s many innocent players suffer a ban from bowl games and post-season play because of the criminal misconduct of one coach and a clear abdication of moral accountability of a few individuals in the administration?
Why should future applicants find their scholarship opportunities curtailed? Why should team members find themselves living in a Soviet-style world where their wins are airbrushed from history? And what qualifies the NCAA to run such a lavishly funded endowment serving victims of child abuse?
Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assault of children in his youth sports program is a horrific crime and an odious abuse of his position in a storied college football program. The Penn State administration failed to address the situation and was appallingly more concerned with preserving its prestige than acting as any moral or legal code would require it to do to by immediately investigating the compelling evidence of sexual abuse, and to take swift action to end it by reporting Mr. Sandusky to the authorities and firing him. Children and young people’s lives were irrevocably harmed and betrayed by the institution.
But criminal and civil justice procedures are already in place for legal claims to be pursued against Mr. Sandusky and Penn State. The school’s resources should be directed to and conserved for those claims, not fall into the hands of the NCAA.
Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Cardozo once brilliantly described the tendency of trade or administrative agencies to abuse their power as that of a roving commission to inquire into evils and then, upon discovering them, do anything it pleases. What in the NCAA rules gives it jurisdiction over this matter involving ancillary and illegal conduct by the coach? How does Penn State’s abysmal handling of the Sandusky situation violate the NCAA rules which address college team sports and not such things as Coach Sandusky’s program for youths? What rule permits it to demand the enormous fine of $60 million — “a fine like no fine before” crowed an observer — from this public university?
Does the NCAA claim it has supervisory authority over college internal governance of its staff? Does the NCAA really want to regulate how colleges deal with claims of sexual misconduct by student-athletes or staff? Have colleges submitted these matters of student, faculty and staff discipline to such an outside organization? How is the NCAA a victim deserving of this wealth transfer?
The Sandusky scandal sadly reveals that prestigious institutions — whether religious, political or educational — will all too often act in a self-protective and immoral manner rather than swiftly check a criminal in its ranks. Tolstoy notes that we somehow have it in our nature to perform or condone terrible acts which we would never dream of doing as individuals that when done in the name of some larger group — a school, a company, a state, a church or a team — are tolerated and their perpetrators protected. The imperatives of an institution and our survival therein ratifies us in acting immorally, as if the guilt which might arise out of these crimes is lessened or transformed in the name of the institution. History is replete with examples of the code of an institution protecting and perpetuating horrendous acts.
It is, therefore, all the more appalling to see another institution step in to aggrandize itself by these terrible events. The sports press describes the threat dangled over Penn State — being banned from Division 1 football — as a “death penalty.” Core questions of whether the NCAA has this power, and whether a school should be able to buy its way out of the death penalty with these resources and in this manner, should not be lost in the furor.
The NCAA’s shocking overreach to claw monies from the university’s treasury is just another scandal, a swift and cynical exploitation of the hysteria surrounding these revelations. Further, it sets a price on the school’s conduct: the NCAA will permit Penn State to continue to play Division 1 football if only enough swag is thrown to the regulators. The NCAA has entered into an unholy alliance with a deeply flawed administration so desperate to protect its lucrative football program — the very sin that led it to protect Sandusky — that it will surrender the school’s treasury, history, and the past and future records and prospects of wholly innocent students to that end. The NCAA sanctions are institutionally grandiose, self-interested, high-handed, ham-handed, mistargeted and totalitarian.
The NCAA has achieved the singular accomplishment of coming out of this scandal looking worse than Penn State itself. •