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.