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November 23rd, 2011


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12:15 pm - On scandals and the NCAA
I don't have too much to say about the current "Penn State Child Sex Abuse Scandal," not really. I've read the reports, and others have read the reports, and a bunch of people who know more than I do about it have commented on it quite in-depth (as have a lot of people who know nothing about it). But there's something that bothers me about it that hasn't been deeply addressed, that I want to talk about for a little bit.

This entry is far less about the sex abuse that's been going on, and far more about the issues it raises for the NCAA.

I was a student-athlete at Ohio State, a university currently facing sanctions for a couple hundred dollars of overpayment to some athletes and some other athletes trading awards they'd won (some had 4 or 5 of the same award, more than they'd ever need, thanks to being at the top of our conference for several straight years). I've been to a couple of football games this year, and I admit I have squarely placed the current trials and tribulations of our football team squarely at the feet of the student-athletes who were dumb enough to do the dumb things they did.

I mean, when I went through our athletic compliance program, it could be summed up very simply: "Don't accept anything from anyone, don't take any benefit your non-student-athlete roommate can't take, don't gamble, and don't sell your image or awards to benefit anyone else no matter how good the cause." I mean, staying eligible really is that simple. Granted, I was a fencer, not a football player, but I sat in the same room as those football players, so I know they got told the same thing.

So I was not surprised when the NCAA came down harshly on OSU for football issues this year. Sure, it's a measly $3,000 or so in improper benefits, and that's really peanuts in the scheme of things, but they were told the rules, and they have to live by them. We had several players suspended (one for 10 games), imposed penalties on ourselves, and are now being investigated for the second-worst offense in the NCAA rulebook: "Failure to Monitor." Translation: that's bad, really bad. All for a couple of tattoos and a couple hundred dollars in improper payments.

The recent spat of NCAA violations across the country has gotten so bad that it has even led to a move to talk about these "poor student-athletes" who have "so many restrictions" that they have trouble "earning money for themselves and their families" getting a stipend for their practice time. There was a notion that, if they'd just earned a piece of the millions they bring into their schools, these infractions wouldn't happen. The student-athlete was an almost sympathetic figure in the whole process, and systematic issues were starting to be noticed by laypeople outside of college sports.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, this Penn State thing broke, and it made all the issues OSU, Michigan, USC, and other schools have had pale in comparison. Everything I've seen tells me that Penn State's issues are on a completely different order than what Ohio State or any other school currently facing sanctions has done, and that order is immensely bigger in magnitude.

People have called on the NCAA to do something. Here is Ohio State, with about $3,000 in memorabilia-for-tattoos and a couple of guys who received about $200-300 for promoting a charity, having its previous season erased, current season demolished by suspensions, and future seasons impacted by loss of scholarships, but this is nowhere near as heinous as what's going on at Penn State. Clearly, the NCAA should do something about Penn State. Right?

Well, it's not so easy. It turns out, the NCAA doesn't actually have any rules for Sandusky and his Second Mile program. Paterno ran what appeared to be a "squeaky clean" shop for half a century and did his legal duty to report what he knew. So, there are no real violations, as creepy as it is to type that.

The NCAA has done the only thing it could, and that is investigate for what it calls "Lack of Institutional Control." This is the single worst finding that the NCAA can bring onto a school (SMU was charged with it and received what is popularly known as the "Death Penalty" for their infractions). But it still brings up one central question that the NCAA can't get away from:

Is the NCAA's duty to protect athletes, or to protect a vision of college student-athletes it originally created?

The fact that the NCAA doesn't have any way to get at the issue of child sex abuse, but it can dole out major punishments for infractions that have little or no bearing on anyone except the individual athlete, is a major issue. Even now, with Penn State, the only thing that the NCAA seems to be able to do is punish the only people who apparently didn't do anything wrong: the football team. For all the claims that the NCAA has made about how it is all about protecting student-athletes with the arcane rules and regulations about how much money or benefit a student-athlete can accept, from whom he or she can accept it, and for what it can be provided, the NCAA has clearly failed in the task of "protecting."

I don't think that this is intentional on their part: I honestly think that the NCAA believes they are doing the best that they can by the athletes and the fans. But when USC, Ohio State, and others face huge sanctions for (comparatively) minor compliance issues and there's virtually nothing to charge in the case of child sex abuse, the glaring hole in their work becomes obvious.

It is very clear, at least to me, that when push came to shove, the rules revealed themselves all too quickly to be not about protecting the student-athletes, but about protecting that image that the NCAA has always hoped to have: the image of athletes who are students first, never raised above the other students; who play only for the love of the game, not for their image; who work hard in both class and on the field; and who are humble and appreciative of their opportunities: all these things come crashing down when the rules make the image, as they have done for so long here.

To make matters worse, this is far from the first sexual abuse scandal to rock the NCAA: the Duke Lacrosse players, the Marquette athletes who apparently assaulted female students, and the Colorado football player who was accused of raping a high school girl in 1997 (among others) are all still in recent memory. This just happens to be the biggest scandal yet, but it shows that the NCAA is less concerned with the kids it makes the rules for, and more concerned about making rules that drive an image it wants to present.

Why, I find myself wondering, do the rules not center around being decent human beings, rather than being amateur athletes and students? Why have the rules not been changed when these things have happened in the past? Does the NCAA really think that the system that they have is working well?

I did see that the current scandal is causing other, actionable items to come out. There's a claim I saw yesterday about how student-athletes were treated differently at Penn State than other students when it came to disciplinary matters, which is one of the most clearly illegal items in the NCAA handbook, and I am sure that others will come up as well (no program can ever be perfect). Penn State seems likely to be closely scrutinized, and the 50+ year squeaky-clean image might get a bit tarnished.

Hopefully, the NCAA can find a resolution to this, and will learn how to protect the student-athletes (and the children who look up to them), rather than protecting the image of college athletics.

Because nothing tarnishes the college athletic dream more than the inability to protect the children who dream of playing on that field.
Current Location: Southeast of Disorder
Current Mood: curiouscurious
Current Music: "In the Shelter", -JB

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From:chronarchy
Date:November 23rd, 2011 06:52 pm (UTC)
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It's a rough road, all around. Like tesinth says below, any program, given proper scrutiny, will get ripped apart if its looked at under a powerful enough microscope (and Penn State is under a thousand of the most powerful ones ever created). I am afraid that it's going to get much worse for Penn State before it gets better.

Part of the issue, and something that came up many times in discussions bare weeks before this story broke, is that the rules are so difficult to follow, so strict and esoteric, that the whole system is clearly only limping along. No one can abide by all the rules that are put forth (though they might be able to, if they just put forth the four rules I summarized above, I guess: I did it), and the infractions are just getting worse and more frequent.

The idea of shuttering the PSU football program is something that might make a certain bit of sense, actually (though I'd hate to see it happen: it's incredibly debilitating and doesn't really benefit anyone, so far as I can tell). It sounds like the football program may have become a nexus for permissive behavior, and if that's the case, then maybe it turns out that it is a viable option. That makes me feel for the guys who never did anything wrong, though, and had no sense that anything wrong was going on. I don't know enough about federal law to know whether or not the Feds could do that, but I do know that the NCAA can pull it off.

In the end, the question will have to be: in what way does whatever happens to Penn State benefit those who suffered? Does it prevent that suffering from continuing? And does it make the dream of playing on a college field a safe one for our children?

To comment on the power of the Big Ten versus the NCAA: One thing the NCAA can do, though, is remove Paterno's (and/or Penn State's) record from their record books. That's a bigger thing than the trophy, obviously, but I don't think they'd do that (and hopefully I'm not putting that in their heads).
[User Picture]
From:tesinth
Date:November 23rd, 2011 06:27 pm (UTC)
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Well said. Besides institutional control the NCAA might look into at least one of the horrible incidents as a possible recruiting violation which opens the door to clearer (more justified by NCAA bylaws) sanctions.

One of the main issues I have with NCAA sanctions is that they usually come down too harshly on student athletes who had nothing at all to do with the incident(s) that led to the sanctions. For instance, USC is having a pretty decent year but can't go a bowl game (and it looks like they would be eligible for a bcs bowl) when none of the current athletes had anything at all to do with Reggie Bush (not defending USC in any way). Now, making the guilty players sit out games like they did with us is perfectly fine, although again we're left at what consitutes a violation (Posey's second unacceptable benefits was due to being paid to drive to work and back, something the union workers also workign there had been paid for but the NCAA didn't think that was acceptable). However, the five players that were allowed to play in the bowl game last year just showed that money is what's important to the NCAA, they should have been benched that game, it wasn't even a case of "we're still investigating" but rather "we know they did it, but we'll let them play anyhow and start the punishment next year because, well, this bowl game brings in a lot of money."

People have long said that if the NCAA looked at any program in the country they would find similar violations, especially what Michigan was caught doing (seriously, the NCAA considers streching to be part of the work out but Michigan didn't start timing the workout until streching was over), AGAIN, NOT defending the team up north, and this wasn't the only issue. Come on, there will always be young athletes making stupid mistakes (i.e. trading their own property for discounts on tattoos), preferable treatment given to players and bosters f-ing everything up, I understand that the NCAA can't say "well, *this* level of noncompliance is alright but anything over is not" but there has to be some reality interjected into the situation. Tattoos? Sit out a few games. Too many workouts? Loose workouts next year. Miami issues? Sit out a few games. USC? Well, that's a tough one. Penn St.? Come down hard on the administration/athletic department and let the players transfer without the required sitting out a year. (sorry for the novel)
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From:chronarchy
Date:November 23rd, 2011 07:03 pm (UTC)
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Thanks. I had not thought of recruiting violations, but I'd suggest that a key thing I worry about is not whether or not the NCAA can "get" someone on a violation, it's whether the NCAA can solve its systematic issue.

Typically, yes, the sanctions do come down far too hard on student-athletes. One of the issues is that they have too few punishments, and they are a bit too broad sometimes: occasionally, the sanctions force a student-athlete to go pro (cf. Pryor), which is the exact opposite of the intent of the sanction. Worse, they sometimes damage a student-athlete's ability to make money on a professional level, even when their infraction wasn't related to talking with agents or trying to market themselves on the pro market (cf. Posey's 10 game suspension).
(Deleted comment)
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From:verginiamus
Date:November 24th, 2011 03:46 pm (UTC)
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What seems to illuminate this is Tank MacNamara comic strip with Enormous State University and now the series on how there things more important than football but the directors fall to grasp.

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