The NCAA Entrenches Itself as Part of the Problem

Robert McGrath for The Chronicle

August 01, 2012

The NCAA sanctions announced last week have assuaged nationwide anger over the horrendous sex crimes in and around the football program at Penn State. In sports terms, the penalties pack a wallop designed to curb the university's athletics prowess for years ahead. They include a record $60-million fine and the elimination of 20 total scholarships each year over the next four years. While some critics have regretted that the NCAA did not revive its "death penalty"—disbanding the Penn State football team for an entire season or more—others consider those punishments equally severe.

By all accounts, NCAA President Mark Emmert acted boldly. Discarding his arcane rulebook, he rose above the association's chronic preoccupation with petty payola, like discounted tattoos for college athletes. Having deferred to Pennsylvania's continuing prosecutorial process, with its jurisdiction set properly in law, Emmert reasserted the NCAA's tradition-based power over big-time college sports.

This sudden intervention is politically shrewd for the NCAA, at least in the short term. Coming after a sensational investigative report from a former FBI director, Louis J. Freeh, it satisfies urgent public demand to smack Penn State for enabling monstrous serial crimes for more than a decade. The impact, visible in news photos of gasping television viewers, has played to sports fans' hunger for victorious clout.

Yet the temporary satisfaction is worse than misleading. Emmert's penalties target collateral or innocent people while sparing NCAA policies that facilitate exploitation of every kind. The NCAA's conscious design is skewed toward tyranny. It shuns the checks and balances of healthy governance. Beneath cheers and boos over Penn State, the NCAA's vengeful stance only obscures the clear resolve needed to address the conflict between sports and academics at major universities.

Emmert took advantage of the Freeh report to straddle a crucial divide. Was the Penn State cover-up caused by extreme but isolated human failure—a freakish aberration, unlikely to be repeated—or by the general culture of commercialized NCAA sports? Apart from its comprehensive detail, Freeh's report begs notice for its careful scope, which confines blame to the five officials already fired or indicted: the former president, Graham B. Spanier; a vice president, Gary C. Schultz; the athletic director, Timothy M. Curley; the late football coach, Joe Paterno; and the convicted child molester, Jerry Sandusky.

Only once does Freeh hint at any broader awareness in the corridors of Penn State, in recounting the ordeal of three anonymous janitors who had witnessed Sandusky raping one of his child victims 12 years ago in a locker room. "Janitor A" testified that the sight reminded him of the shock from his Korean War combat—"people with their guts blowed out, arms dismembered. ... I just witnessed something in there I'll never forget."

According to Freeh's report, the janitorial staff gathered that night to calm those employees, who remained too terrified of their athletics bosses ever to report the crime. Freeh expresses understandable sympathy for the janitors and assigns them no fault, but his report fails to examine the basis for their dread or to trace any reverberations.

Implausibly, no word of such incidents is unearthed from Freeh's 430 interviews and 3.5 million pieces of documentary evidence. Assorted deans and assistants are said merely to have been annoyed that the ex-coach, Sandusky, got continuing support for payments and unusual privileges, such as "emeritus" status on the faculty, from 1998 until almost the moment of his arrest, last November.

Despite its narrow focus, the Freeh report stoked a broad revulsion against Penn State and its disgraced coach, Paterno. Mark Emmert promptly channeled this uproar into boundless promise for NCAA sanctions. "Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people," he declared at a grandiose news conference, which rang false on many counts.

Emmert bypassed his own diagnosis. Citing Freeh, he denounced egregious moral lapses by Sandusky's four superiors, including Paterno, but the retribution pointedly excused their administrative offices. Instead of eliminating 20 positions per year for Penn State coaches, athletics assistants, and presidential aides, the NCAA will eliminate that many scholarships for athletes still in high school.

I do not mean to be soft on Penn State. Inevitably the university as a whole must suffer for coddling its football legend. May the prosecutions yet to come—together with civil lawsuits—track shameful responsibility wherever the evidence leads. Meanwhile, however, the NCAA's righteous stance cannot bear scrutiny. The public furor over Penn State drove Emmert to take an enormous gamble. He reached for authority over criminal and moral issues that violated no NCAA rules. To do so, he cut loose not only from the 400-page rule book but also from its established procedures. The NCAA's ersatz courts, while notoriously arbitrary and opaque, have always mimicked the fair rituals of public justice. Emmert's new mandate rests on a naked but precarious decree, exposed beyond previous limits.

This emergency action shores up the NCAA's core pose as protector of youth against predatory bullies. Cold truth is quite the reverse. The NCAA concentrates power and control exactly where the villainy occurred at Penn State: in the coaches and chief administrators. At all the major sports institutions, the counterparts of those officials harness votes to set NCAA policy while brokering the market power of fans.

Simultaneously, these sports professionals marginalize others in higher education. They push professors to abdicate their role as campus citizens. And the NCAA bylaws expressly deny representation to the athletes themselves. Players cannot vote or hold NCAA membership, which strips them of any voice in their own enterprise. Coaches yank scholarships at will, supported by NCAA rules that deprive athletes of recourse. Players have even less standing for due process than do the terrified janitors at Penn State. Indeed, babies in diapers are scarcely less dependent or helpless than athletes in an NCAA system that safeguards exploiters, fleeces the weak, and secures greed above performance—all while professing an idealized devotion to the young.

The NCAA systematically obliterates the basic rights of athletes alone. No college could or would subjugate other students, let alone regular citizens, banishing them from work-study jobs as bookstore cashiers or teaching assistants, forbidding them freedom to sling a pizza or start a company. A maze of supporting rules outlaws every tangible benefit that falls anywhere near college players, down to a taxi ride for their mothers or a Christmas card from a sports agent.

With gall rivaling that of North Korea, the NCAA monopolizes rights and revenue in the name of those thus deprived—claiming to guarantee in return a unique purity for college athletes. The amateur pretense, which vanished decades ago at the Olympics, still condemns "dirty" players for unethical self-interest, and NCAA officials deflect every demand to state a justifying principle in logic or law.

Larger consequences for education lie hidden in plain sight. The gross disparities in power and responsibility, which helped perpetuate the sex crimes at Penn State, also distort campus values in an era of impending crisis. Colleges face unsustainable budget bubbles for classrooms as well as athletics. To adapt, reformers lately have debated what amounts to a constitutional overhaul of separate fiefdoms, from faculty and coaches to students.

My own outline, "A Three Point Reform Agenda for Sports in Higher Education," calls for a binding framework built around transparency, balance, and equity. Even the first two standards, while broadly accepted, would be daunting and difficult to implement. Some constituencies on campus are complacent and cowed, while others are entrenched. Many observers argue cogently that only a landmark judicial order, or a seismic meltdown, could force universities to handle conflict between academics and sports.

Hope springs eternal, but I am convinced that reform agitation is wasted without firmness on point number three, equity: "No freedom shall be abridged because of athletic status." This idea, while simple and hard to refute, is anathema to the NCAA—or at least to its controlling minority of big-time sports universities. They reliably howl against paid athletes and wax misty about selfless learning. They impose a guardianship that undermines self-protection for their wards. Above all they refuse to put the issue of rights first, where it belongs. The NCAA's bedrock stance weighs implacably against sensible solutions; instead it anchors the problem, despite internal strains.

Diverse reformers, expecting no favor, must look beyond this harsh obstacle to one another. Their support percolates well ahead of alliances or fixed plans, and they can marshal two capacities from the heart of every university's purpose: independent thought and fearless education.

Taylor Branch is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author whose most recent book is The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA, a Byliner Originals e-book.