In Punishing Penn State, The NCAA’s Hypocrisy Knows No Limit

The NCAA must certainly feel good about itself after it leveled the Penn State football program this morning, fining the university $60 million, banning it from post-season play for four years, reducing its scholarship allotment, and vacating 14 years of wins, punishments that will ultimately decimate the program for years to come. The Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal that led to the sanctions brought down Penn State’s president, athletic director, legendary football coach and other officials, and letting the Nittany Lions return to the gridiron as if it never happened would have seemed like an abdication of duties. Penn State, most assuredly, deserved to be punished.

Just not by the NCAA.

In laying out the sanctions this morning in Indianapolis, NCAA president Mark Emmert called for a change in the Penn State culture that led to the cover up of Sandusky’s crimes. What he didn’t acknowledge was how deeply involved the NCAA has been in creating and fostering that culture, and as a result, he handed down a decision that reeks of hypocrisy.

Take, for instance, Emmert’s opening remarks, in which he decried the culture of “hero worship” that led Penn State officials to believe they were invincible and others to believe their idols could do no wrong. But in 2010, Emmert engaged in his own “hero worship,” calling disgraced former Penn State head coach Joe Paterno a “terrific example of everything the NCAA stands for.” Paterno, Emmert added, was the “definitive role model of what it means to be a college coach.” He was, of course, until he wasn’t, a fact Emmert’s own “hero worship” blinded him to.

Oregon State University president Ed Ray, who doubles as the chairman of the NCAA’s Executive Committee, got in on the hypocrisy too, announcing that the Penn State sanctions send the message that university “presidents and chancellors were in charge.” He made no mention of the fact that Graham Spanier, the ousted former president of Penn State who played an extensive role in the cover up, once chaired the NCAA’s Board of Directors and held a seat on the Executive Committee. Spanier, just a year ago, was “in charge.” How comforting.

Or take Emmert’s later inability to describe the exact NCAA bylaw Penn State violated — an answer that would have made it clear that the organization wasn’t massively overstepping its legal bounds in the name of public relations.

And though there were dozens of mentions of Penn State’s “culture” and how it needed to change, neither Emmert nor Ray acknowledged their organization’s role in creating the “football first” culture that helped create the scandal. The NCAA has absolved much of its management of college football, outsourcing its postseason to money-making entities like the Bowl Championship Series and other bowl games that often cost its members money. And as revenues for its biggest programs — Penn State included — exploded and created even more incentive to win games at all costs, the NCAA fed the beast, helping enhance and promote bigger athletic spectacles.

Massive public outcry, meanwhile, has already forced changes at Penn State, where Sandusky is headed to prison, former athletics director Tim Curley has been charged, and Spanier could soon face a lawsuit of his own (Paterno died in January). The Dept. of Education is investigating the university, which commissioned the Freeh Report to uncover exactly how deep the scandal went. It removed the statue of Paterno standing outside the stadium on its own, and it will almost assuredly pay heavy civil penalties to Sandusky’s victims.

The university may not have decimated the program on its own, but new administrators faced with public pressure could have made institutional changes to refocus the school’s culture. It could have made sure that football at Penn State, good or bad, champion or loser, would forever be a reminder of what happens when priorities are imbalanced, when football is too important, when the people we are supposed to help become the people we end up hurting. It could have taken positive steps to prevent future incidents by diverting funding from football to awareness programs and other initiatives to prevent child rape and foster education among its fans and students about molestation.

The NCAA, for its part, could have turned it gaze inward and examined its own role in creating the football first culture that made such a devastating scandal possible. Instead, it demolished Penn State for abdicating its responsibilities as an academic institution without acknowledging that it incentivized such abdication.

Penn State, without a doubt, needs a culture change. What Mark Emmert either refuses to acknowledge or does not understand is how desperately his own organization needs one too.