One More Time On The NCAA’s Punishment Of Penn State

Before NCAA president Mark Emmert handed down the sanctions last week, I was not as fiercely opposed to the idea of punishment as others, including Dave Zirin and Pat Forde, two writers I admire and respect. Though I agreed with both that NCAA sanctions were a generally bad idea, I viewed it as inevitable that the NCAA would do something because, as I’ve written before, to do otherwise would have seemed, to most, like a dereliction of its duties.

Regardless of how anyone feels about the NCAA’s decision to punish Penn State, though, it is undoubtedly worth a look at the implications of that punishment and how it was determined, delivered, and carried out, and whether the punishment of Penn State should be aimed at simply punishing the institution or at generating large-scale reforms at both Penn State and within college sports as a whole.

If you think the point of punishing is simply to be punitive, you undoubtedly support the NCAA’s decision, and any questioning of that decision is likely to look like a blustering defense of Penn State. That’s fine, I guess, but it seems to me that the focus on punishing Penn State has lost sight of the fact that punishment isn’t enough. Punishment should not come for the sake of punishment, it should not come to make us feel like we’re doing right, and it shouldn’t come because not punishing would cause a public relations nightmare. Punishment needs to be rehabilitative, and it needs to be aimed at preventing similar situations in the future.

The NCAA’s method of punishment, however, is too often astounding in its ability to be punitive and equally astounding in its inability to be effectively punitive. That is, it focuses too much on the punishment and not enough on rehabilitation and prevention to ensure that similar actions aren’t repeated imminently thereafter.

Take past NCAA sanctions as examples. In the 1980s, the NCAA gave Southern Methodist University’s football program the “death penalty” and leveled the University of Kentucky’s basketball program over impermissable benefits provided to players and recruits. Less than a decade ago, it hammered Baylor University’s basketball program for its role in a massive cover-up of the murder of a former player. In the last decade, the NCAA has placed sanctions on both Florida State University and the University of Georgia due to academic fraud that took place in their athletic departments.

And yet, little has changed. Multiple big-time programs — most notably the University of Alabama and University of Southern California — have been hit over impermissable benefits received by players since the SMU and Kentucky scandals (Kentucky, incidentally, repeated similar violations in its football program a little more than a decade later). The NCAA is currently investigating the University of North Carolina in what may turn out to be the biggest academic fraud case in the history of college athletics. And Penn State spent more than a decade covering up major crimes, undeterred by the Baylor sanctions.

I don’t trust that the NCAA’s treatment of this scandal is any different. This scandal happened at Penn State, and as such, the focus has remained on that institution. But this scandal could have happened and could still happen in hundreds of other programs, and because of that, focusing on Penn State’s culture isn’t enough. If we want to prevent a similar scandal from happening elsewhere in the future, it’s worth examining the similar “sports first” culture that persists throughout top-tier college sports and how the NCAA, the punisher in this instance, helped create, foster, and incentivize that culture.

If the point of the punishment is simply to be punitive, the NCAA’s actions will almost certainly accomplish that goal. But if the point is to generate the type of culture change that is desperately needed not just at Penn State but throughout the NCAA, I’m afraid the organization’s unwillingness to acknowledge its own place in that culture will cause it to fall far short of that aim.