NCAA President and former University of Washington President Mark Emmert seized center stage last week when he levied unprecedented penalties against Penn State University in the wake of sexual crimes by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and their coverup by senior Penn State officials, including the late coaching legend Joe Paterno. In undertaking the action, not previously falling within the NCAA's jurisdiction, Emmert said he was sending a strong message to colleges about their athletic programs on the eve of a new football season.
Then, later in the week, a 14-year-old San Diego quarterback, Tate Martell, committed publicly to the University of Washington football program after his high-school career, yet to begin, has concluded. Make no mistake, the kid can be a star, a youth-quarterback specialist attested.
Few appear to have seen the irony in the two developments.
Public emotion was running strongly against Penn State in the wake of the release of the independent Freeh report (led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh), commissioned by the university, which in 267 pages laid out the tawdry details of how Paterno, the Penn State president, the athletic director, and a vice president "failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming childen for over a decade." Freeh called their disregard for Sandusky's boy victims "callous and shocking." Sandusky is awaiting sentencing after his conviction on 45 criminal counts for abusing 10 boys. The university, a state institution, and its trustees and officers face lawsuits that could seek and bring damages in the hundreds of millions. Penn State, as an institution, is in a situation not unlike that of Catholic dioceses that knew about and covered up instances of similar abuse by Catholic clergy.
Emmert levied a $60 million fine against Penn State, banned it from postseason football for four years, cut its football scholarships by 40 over four years, and vacated all its football victories dating back to 1998 (when Sandusky's abuses became known there). The erasure of the football wins removed from Paterno his honor as the college coach with the largest number of career victories; the university also removed his statue from in front of the Nittany Lions' football stadium. The Emmert decree specifies that the $60 million fine cannot impact Penn State's other 30 varsity sports, including women's sports, so the money to pay the fine must be found outside the athletic department. Penn State football players may transfer elsewhere, without any waiting period or penalty to their eligibility, for the upcoming season. (One such potential transfer visited the University of Washington last Thursday and Friday.) The Big Ten conference, to which Penn State belongs, levied its own penalties, including the withholding from the school of its share of conference football television revenues.
Penn State has not challenged or appealed the Emmert punishment. It has been questioned, however, by former NCAA officials and, last weekend, by someone characterized by the Chronicle of Higher Education as an authoritative source within the Freeh commission.
Emmert had stated that his action was based principally on information contained in the Freeh report, which he termed "vastly more involved and thorough than any investigation we've ever conducted." But the Freeh commission source told the Chronicle that the document "was not meant to be used as the sole piece, or the large piece, of the NCAA's decisionmaking."
Rather, the source said, "it was meant to be a mechanism to help Penn State move forward. To be used otherwise creates an obstacle to institution changing."
The Freeh team, the source went on, "reviewed how Penn State operated, not how they worked within the NCAA's system.
"The NCAA's job is to investigate whether Penn State broke its rules and whether it gained a (sports) competitive advantage in doing so. The NCAA took this report and ran with it without further exploration. If you really wanted to show there was a nexus to cover up, interview the coaches. See their knowledge and culpability."
"The sanctions against Penn State were really overwhelming, and no one imagined the report being used to do that," the person told the Chronicle. "People (preparing the report) thought it would help others draw conclusions about what happened and provide a guide for leaders to be able to identify minefields and navigate through them. Instead Emmert took the report and used Penn State's own resources to do them in. The institution is made of people too and they don't deserve this."
Did Emmert dispense some hip-shooting frontier justice that not only will punish Penn State but concevably could make it more subject to independent legal action against it?
Emmert, in announcing the penalties, said they were onetime penalties to punish extraordinary, one-of-a-kind misconduct. He was backed by an NCAA presidents council in levying them. But, until now, as the Freeh commission source pointed out, the NCAA has not had this within its purview. Will the NCAA hereafter punish institutions because of legal, moral, or ethical misconduct by individuals which already is being dealt with in civil or criminal courts? Until now, at least, it has been consistently charged with laxity in dealing with institutional violations within its jurisdiction.
Emmert, in warning against the overemphasis on college football, came across as hypocritical. He ran the Baton Rouge main campus of Lousiana State University, which generally is regarded as an academic appendage of the LSU football program, before he came to the University of Washington. On arrival at the UW, he made it a first order of business to improve the Husky football program, which he characterized as "the front porch of the university." He unsuccessfully pressed the Legislature to appropriate big money, in a time of public deficits, to rebuild Husky stadium. When they refused, he publicly belabored by name several legislators who had opposed him. At the midnight hour of his departure for the NCAA, he gave his longtime public relations aide, Scott Woodward, a rich long-term contract as athletic director.
The closest historic parallel to Emmert's unprecedented action against Penn State, it seems to me, is Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis' lifetime banishment from major-league baseball of several star players suspected — but not convicted — of involvement in the 1919 Black Sox scandal in which the World Series was allegedly thrown by several White Sox players. Landis was brand new to the job, as is Emmert, and had a grand idea of himself. Major league baseball owners accepted his unprecedented action because they could not appear to oppose it — just as Penn State officials, on the receiving end of massive public disapproval, cannot appear to oppose Emmert.
It remains to be seen whether the NCAA will visit similar territory in the future or return to its former mission. The overemphasis on college football — the cash cow for all other college sports — is a longstanding problem in American universities.
During my own UW undergraduate days, star running back Hugh McElhenny, from humble origins, drove a bright red convertible around campus. When he left, for professional football, it was joked that McElhenny was the first man to take a pay cut leaving college football for pro football. In prior years a prominent Chicago physician had sent tough Midwest boys to Husky football, presumably subsidizing them along the way. Several football players lost their eligibility, during my time at the UW, for receiving illegal subsidies from boosters. It happened again in later years. It has happened, time and again, at many campuses — only occasionally found and punished.
In recent history the competition for recruitment of high-school players has reached new levels (although Martell, to my knowledge, is the first 14-year-old to have committed to the Husky program). The 17- and 18-year-old targets of college recruiters often change their minds about their college commitments two or three times in their high-school senior years. College coaches spend many of their waking hours communicating with these teenagers via personal media. They know that gaining or losing a potential college star can make or break their own coaching careers and be the difference between full and half-filled stadiums on game day.
I asked former Sonics coach Len Wilkens last year if he might return to coaching. "Only at the professional level," he said, "but never at the college level. I am interested in coaching but not in romancing 17-year-old kids who arrive on campus expecting to be treated like gods."
In the mid-1950s, as a Columbia graduate student, I wrote a long paper on recruitment of college athletes. There were several major recruiting scandals at the time. As part of my research, I sent a letter and questionnaire to all the major-college football coaches in the United States. To my amazement, the response rate was over 90 percent. Some of the responding letters ran several pages. They all had a common theme: The coaches felt degraded and were angry because of the high-pressure environments in which they found themselves. Most had begun by loving their sport and wanting to coach it. Almost all were disgusted by the abuses they found in big-time college sports.
That was a long time ago, before football coaches got salaries several times larger than their college presidents and before teenage athletes began believing they were entitled celebrities. (Emmert recently proposed that it was not enough that college student scholarship athletes received free educations; they should be paid as well, he said.)
Emmert did his Judge Landis thing. Now we shall see what, if anything, follows. If the past is prologue, expect little change.