Mark Emmert Brought Down Penn State, But Left Disturbing Precedent for NCAA

Mark Emmert acted. Deploying what could best be described as “the best interest of college athletics clause, the NCAA president unilaterally hammered Penn State’s football program with devastating sanctions, enough to constitute a de facto death penalty. He superseded the NCAA’s traditional role in college athletics and asserted the organization’s relevance in the short-term with devastating sanctions. This was not the right decision, though it is not clear there was a right decision.

Penn State’s scandal was outside and beyond the NCAA’s purview. With executive committee members’ approval, Emmert broke precedent. He dispensed with the organization’s exhaustive, legalistic process entirely and meted out summary judgement. He transformed the NCAA into something it has seldom, if ever, been: proactive and timely.

There were compelling reasons to back away, namely a nebulous at best pretext for intervention, but not acting in the most blatant and egregious incident of college football corruption would undercut what little shred of authority the NCAA had remaining in other situations.  The NCAA’s authority rests on the perception of its authority. The loss of prestige might have been irrecoverable.

Once the decision to intervene was made, the NCAA could not moderate the intervention. It had to be severe enough to “change the football culture.” The punishment had to be beyond comparison to far less egregious NCAA violations. It had to avoid the perception of quantifying the facilitation of child rape in scholarships and missed TicketCity Bowl trips.

The NCAA did not take the bold (and messy) step of shutting down the program, though the competitive sanctions should do so in all but name. Penn State fans will have the laundry to root for, but that is about it. The Nittany Lions won’t be eligible to compete for the next four years. They won’t be capable of competing for far longer. The staggering $60 million fine blunts calls for more severity. The vacated wins, as always, are pointless and asinine.

Penn State’s football culture will change, if only because fixating on the sport for the next decade will be depressing. That probably will be edifying for a school and community in clear need of it. The punishment and the manner of its delivery, though, still carry the whiff of catering to the prevailing wind and charging triumphantly into an already razed village to plow salt into the fields. The true work has been and is being done and this distracts from it. The NCAA piled on, largely because it can right now with impunity.

Stern lectures on the perils of placing too strong a priority on college football success are needed, though there is certain irony in the men signing billion-dollar TV deals, earning seven-figure salaries and flitting about the country in chartered planes being the ones to deliver them.

Emmert’s decision, though approved by NCAA’s member institutions through the executive committee, creates a disturbing precedent. Was disavowing its own rules a one time response to extreme moral turpitude or a template for future NCAA action? Culture was the justification, but it is hard to find a major college football or basketball program in the country that does not have a warped athletic “culture.” Will schools such as Miami now be subject to summary judgement? Will such a cursory pretext for intervention hold up in amoral contexts?

Hammering Penn State showed the NCAA can act, but doing so without firm justification reaffirmed how flawed and ineffectual the NCAA truely is.

[Photo via Getty]

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