Wednesday, November 9th, 2011...4:19 pm

Penn St. and Possible NCAA Sanctions

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Lost in the fallout of this scandal (and rightfully so as the focus is on the incredible misdeeds of Penn St. officials) are the potential implications for the football program and the student-athletes on the Penn St. University Football team. NCAA President Mark Emmert issued a statement last night. It reads:

“This is a criminal matter under investigation by law enforcement  authorities and I will not comment on details. However, I have read the  grand jury report and find the alleged assaults appalling.  As a parent  and an educator, the notion that anyone would use a position of trust to  prey on children is despicable. My thoughts and concern goes out to the  alleged victims and their families.”

So the question becomes, especially based off this statement, will the NCAA become involved? Will the Athletic Department and/or Football Program be subject to sanctions as well? From the plain language of his statement, President Emmert seems to say that the NCAA is not yet involved. But his statement certainly does not state that they won’t become involved later on down the road. If we look back at some of the recent NCAA infractions committed by big-name programs, many have started with criminal investigations. The Ohio St. tattoo parlor incident comes to mind immediately. The reason Jim Tressel was “tipped off” about the player’s trading merchandise for tattoos was that the owner of the parlor was being investigated by the FBI. Since that incident cost Tressel his job for “dishonest” conduct, it seems like a proper comparison.

Ohio St. has not been formally “sanctioned” by the NCAA Infractions Committee, and has self-imposed the following penalties: Vacating all 2010 wins including a Sugar Bowl victory over Arkansas, the suspension of the players involved, two years of NCAA probation and of course the dismissal of Head Coach Jim Tressel. That incident and this incident are not at all comparable in terms of wrongdoing, but are they comparable under NCAA Rules?

Without looking at the NCAA Bylaws (nor do I recommend anyone doing so, can’t imagine it’d be very interesting), it is difficult to see any obvious violations. As much as this sounds like a troubling conclusion, there were no material benefits conferred upon players, recruits or anyone else that afforded Penn St. a competitive advantage. No one took money or violated those specific rules. NCAA rules have to do with competitive advantages after all. In many ways, it is simple a criminal matter.

Now, there is a dishonesty provision in the NCAA bylaws that covers coaches. It’s the provision that helped sink Tressel and did sink Bruce Pearl (men’s basketball) at Tennessee. But that dishonesty had to do with duties imposed by the NCAA. For Tressel, it was lying on compliance forms. For Pearl, it was lying to NCAA investigators about impermissible recruiting practices. Here, no one at Penn St. seemed to have lied or engaged in other dishonest conduct to the NCAA based on an NCAA duty. It’s the same reason why neither Joe Paterno nor the Assistant Coach who witnessed and reported the act to Paterno are currently subjected to criminal liability. Both reported to their immediate supervisors, which is the only legal duty applied to them by the sexual abuse reporting statutes. It may not be the answer we all like, but it seems to the correct one under the rule of law.

Now, I don’t believe that Penn St. will completely escape NCAA inquiry and subsequent sanctions. My bet is they will be put on some type of probation in which the new administration and coaching staff (because everyone there will be gone within weeks) are subject to enhanced review. Any “minor violation” by the football program or the athletic department is likely to bring down significant penalties, but as far as what the NCAA can do about this incident, I think the answer is not that much. And before you get outraged, let me explain why:

Not a single player on the Penn St. Football Roster did anything wrong. Every individual student-athlete associated with that team has fully complied with all obligations thrust upon them. They’re also in the middle of a very good season, leading the conference, but that doesn’t really matter. This same argument would apply if they were 0-9 instead of 8-1. They agreed to play football for a staff that represented high moral character and “doing things the right away.” Just because that staff did not live up its promise does not mean that the players should be punished. And if the NCAA were to come down hard on Penn St and punish the program athletically, the players would be the ones harmed. This coaching staff is certain to be gone very soon. (In fact, some of the non-implicated assistant coaches are likely to suffer huge hits from their careers based on this incident. They will lose their jobs, and aren’t guaranteed to find others, while it seems like only two members of the staff had any reason to know something was wrong, but that’s another issue altogether.)

NCAA sanctions and penalties are unlikely to affect the ones who truly committed the illegal/immoral/unethical acts, so I think the NCAA’s best course would be to put Penn St. on some sort of probation as alluded to above, but forego major sanctions, allowing the players and the next staff’s to compete going forward. We can only imagine what it must be like for those players to be in the middle of this firestorm that they had no role in. Let’s not punish those who did nothing wrong, even where others did nothing but wrong.

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