NCAA Sanctions Penn State

July 24, 2012

“By perpetuating a ‘football first’ culture that ultimately enabled serial child sexual abuse to occur, The Pennsylvania State University leadership failed to value and uphold institutional integrity, resulting in a breach of the NCAA constitution and rules.”  That’s the opening sentence of the NCAA’s announcement of sanctions against Penn State.

Very bad things happened at Penn State: Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach, has been convicted of serial sexual abuse of children; and there are well-supported allegations that the leadership of Penn State, including its head football coach and its president, failed to take action to stop Sandusky, who was using Penn State’s football facilities and its cachet to lure and groom the boys that he molested.

But what NCAA “rules” did Penn State violate?

To be sure, the NCAA has rules in abundance.  There’s a rule book for each of the three Divisions, and each of those documents is fat enough that you’d think twice before carrying it around in your briefcase.  The rules are picky and specific, and they virtually all try to prevent any institution or team from gaining an unfair advantage over its competitors in terms of recruiting, practicing or playing.  Each January I’d have the opportunity to sit in a huge room with hundreds of others (presidents, athletic directors and coaches) and make rules about when the first day of practice could be for men’s lacrosse, or how many men could be on the practice squad that scrimmages against  women’s volleyball teams.

So which of those thousands of rules did Penn State violate?  This is what the NCAA says: “In determining the penalties for Penn State, the Executive Committee, Board and NCAA leadership considered numerous bylaws and portions of the constitution. Click here to see the full list of bylaws and constitutional articles that were breached.”  Click here?  On the NCAA website, there’s nothing there to click.  Nearby, however, is a link to “NCAA Constitution References,” which takes you to various selections from the NCAA Constitution and the Division I By-Laws.

The referenced Constitution and By-Laws selections contain high-minded prose in abundance.  For example:

[Constitution 2.4] For intercollegiate athletics to promote the character development of participants, to enhance the integrity of higher education and to promote civility in society, student-athletes, coaches, and all others associated with these athletics programs and events should adhere to such fundamental values as respect, fairness, civility, honesty and responsibility. These values should be manifest not only in athletics participation, but also in the broad spectrum of activities affecting the athletics program.”


[Bylaw 11.1.1]  Individuals employed by or associated with a member institution to administer, conduct or coach intercollegiate athletics shall act with honesty and sportsmanship at all times so that intercollegiate athletics as a whole, their institutions and they, as individuals, represent the honor and dignity of fair play and the generally recognized high standards associated with wholesome competitive sports. (See Bylaw 10 for more specific ethical-conduct standards.)


[Bylaws 19.01.2]  Individuals employed by or associated with member institutions for the administration, the conduct or the coaching of intercollegiate athletics are, in the final analysis, teachers of young people. Their responsibility is an affirmative one, and they must do more than avoid improper conduct or questionable acts. Their own moral values must be so certain and positive that those younger and more pliable will be influenced by a fine example. Much more is expected of them than of the less critically placed citizen.

Note, first, however, that there is not a single reference to a rule that has been violated.  Thousands of rules, and yet, apparently, not one that Penn State violated. And along this line, note, too, that the NCAA did not follow anything like its normal rules enforcing process in handing down these sanctions.  NCAA conducted no investigation, and simply asked its president to hand down whatever sanctions he thought appropriate.

And note, second, and much more important, that virtually every Division I university violates the spirit of this high-minded prose in the Constitution and Bylaws.  Where is there a Division I university that exercises meaningful “institutional control” over its men’s basketball or football program?  Where in Division I do academics take priority over athletics in major sports?  NCAA’s rules are trying to maintain equal terms of competition; they are not aiming to enforce the lofty sentiments of its Constitution or Bylaws.  I’ve written about this often in the past, for example here, here, and here.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the NCAA is trying to distance itself from the Penn State mess.  It wants to be seen as being as disapproving of Penn State’s behavior as it can be, but it doesn’t appear to have a single rule (among its thousands of rules) that speak to what happened at Penn State.

Ask this: does the NCAA have any rule, or any code of ethics, about the interactions between coaches and young people under the age of eighteen?  Not that I know of.  The NCAA cares about winning and about money, and that is all.  They’ve been caught with their pants down in this scandal.  They are trying to look noble and righteous, but they couldn’t begin to apply the lofty standards they are proclaiming in an equitable manner.  That’s not what their rules are about.

Yes, very bad things happened at Penn State, but the NCAA is absolutely the wrong organization to deal with what happened there.


About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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