In 2013, Rutgers University found itself mired in scandal after its head men’s basketball coach Mike Rice was secretly filmed verbally and physically tormenting his players. Weeks of critical coverage led to Rice’s ouster, as well as the dismissal of a string of Athletics Department officials including both Athletics Director Tim Pernetti and his successor, Julie Hermann.
A year earlier, the biggest story in college sports was the slow unraveling of the football program at Penn State University. There, the school’s legendary coach Joe Paterno was forced out of his head coaching job and dozens of his wins vacated as a result of the school’s inaction in preventing assistant coach Jerry Sandusky from sexually assaulting several young boys in the team’s facilities.
In 2016, at Michigan State, the crimes of team doctor Larry Nassar were finally stopped after decades of unimpeded predation. The university’s failure to protect hundreds of students — even after being explicitly told, years prior, what was occurring right there on campus — cost university president Lou Ann Simon her job, and is still threatening to upend several other school officials.
Which brings us to Columbus, Ohio. At Ohio State, the recently reported details of what appears to be the largest sexual abuse scandal in U.S. sports history — with an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 victims spanning nearly 30 years — are still unfolding, in parallel with a separate scandal involving a horrific series of domestic abuse allegations against a prominent assistant coach for the Buckeyes football team.
On Wednesday, the university placed famed head coach Urban Meyer on administrative leave while the school determines when he first learned about the domestic abuse allegations and whether he willfully ignored it, contrary to his pleas of ignorance. Later that evening, NBC News reported that former head wrestling coach Russ Hellickson had contacted several former wrestlers urging them to recant their accusations that assistant coach Jim Jordan — now a Republican congressman from Ohio — knew about instances of sexual abuse by former team doctor Richard Strauss and did nothing to stop them from continuing.
These scandals are not unrelated. Yes, there are valid arguments to be made about the toxic subculture of big-time college sports — particularly at the so-called Power 5 conferences, where operating costs and revenues routinely stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars. But there’s a more tangible connective tissue binding these scandals as well, one that hasn’t been adequately addressed as of yet: why is the Big Ten Conference content to sit on its hands while its member programs skirt any responsibility?
All four of the programs mentioned above are full members of the Big Ten, arguably the most powerful conference in NCAA Division I athletics. With the exception of Rutgers — which was transitioning into the conference when their scandal unfolded — all of them are routinely competing for national championships in college football, by far the most lucrative (and expensive) endeavor in collegiate athletics. And yet, even as school officials, state legislatures, NCAA executives, and the United States Congress contemplate how to hold the guilty parties accountable, officials within the Big Ten Conference, the governing body that holds a great deal of authority over its members, have remained largely on the sidelines.
Their absence from the conversation is particularly unfortunate given their unique position to act. Athletic conferences occupy a happy middle ground between an individual university and the entirety of the NCAA. Schools like Michigan State and Ohio State will routinely launch their own “independent” investigations into allegations of misconduct within their own athletics departments, as both have done this year. But it strains credulity to expect a university to impose proper accountability with any semblance of impartiality. Would Ohio State really threaten its football program — which last year accounted for $185,409,602 in revenue — without outside intervention?
On the other hand, the NCAA is a massive organization with its own set of complicated — some would say corrupt — bureaucracies that impede its ability to act in any meaningful way. Of the four scandals outlined above, only Penn State football suffered serious repercussions from the NCAA, in the form of an $80 million fine, a four-year ban on the postseason, and the retroactive forfeiture of more than a decade’s worth of wins. The organization largely ignored the Larry Nassar scandal, and has yet to indicate any interest in the ongoing saga at Ohio State either, most likely because neither case threatens the NCAA’s sham business model.
Which brings us again to the Big Ten. There are competing narratives about just how much power an athletics conference has to punish its member institutions, but at least some university officials are of the belief that the conference can do a great deal.
During the height of the Penn State scandal, Sally Mason — then the president of the University of Iowa and the chair of the Big Ten’s Council of Presidents and Chancellors — told the Des Moines Register that the conference was prepared to take action.
“I think you can expect when the NCAA is ready to talk about what the appropriate actions are with regard to Penn State, that we’ll be ready to talk about appropriate actions with regard to the conference as well,” she said. “The conference definitely has jurisdiction to take action in a case like this.”
The Penn State case also prompted the conference to consider granting new authority to its leadership council. The Chronicle of Higher Education got hold of an 18-page proposal that would, among other things, give the committee of presidents and chancellors the power to fire officials from the conference’s member schools should their behavior “significantly harm the league’s reputation.”
Big Ten officials denied the proposal ever advanced past the initial draft stage, but they stopped short of refuting reports that the council was contemplating kicking Penn State out of the conference entirely, and in doing so lent credence to the notion that they could if they so chose.
Of course, there is plenty of real estate between inaction and expulsion. Like most of the largest NCAA conferences, the Big Ten controls much of the media rights for its member institutions. The Big Ten Network airs hundreds of games for its 14 member schools, resulting in millions of dollars in advertising and broadcast revenue. If so inclined, they could pull a member school from its airwaves, or withhold conference revenue from a program. Conferences dictate the venues and locations for their playoff tournaments — the Big Ten could keep its championships away from negligent schools. Conferences set the dates and times of conference matchups for its members — the Big Ten could punish programs by giving them an unfriendly schedule. If they wanted to, the conference could ban a school from conference tournaments entirely, or deny a program an automatic bid to the NCAA playoffs. Conferences are anything but powerless.
Opponents of such extreme measures typically argue that it’s the student athletes at these programs — most of whom have done nothing wrong — who would bear the most burden. I’m sympathetic to those arguments, but as we saw when the NCAA handed down punishments to Penn State in 2012 or Louisville in 2017, there are ways to protect those students. For instance, the NCAA could relax its strict transfer rules, which typically render a player ineligible for a year if he or she transferred to another Division I school.
All of this raises the question: why is the Big Ten largely absolving itself of two of the biggest scandals in U.S. sports history? Is it fear of alienating two of the largest programs in Division I sports? Is it out of misplaced deference to the NCAA? Are they waiting to see how the schools themselves respond?
To varying degrees, other NCAA power conferences have demonstrated a greater comfort in taking matters into their own hands. The Big 12, for instance, opted to withhold 25 percent of future conference revenue from Baylor University following that school’s failure to address multiple allegations of sexual assault by several football players. On the other hand, the PAC-12 has done nothing as of yet to punish USC, which allowed a gynecologist to continue treating student athletes for years despite multiple allegations of sexual assault by numerous women.
There is one possible, depressing explanation that makes the most sense: Any significant punishment levied by a conference necessarily requires an overwhelming majority of members to support it. And while holding one of your rivals to account may seem like an attractive option today, if the trajectory of the Big Ten and college athletics as a whole over the last decade has taught us anything, it’s that your school’s time under the spotlight is probably not far off. And when that day comes, you might not be so willing to let the rest of the conference decide your fate.