A New NCAA? Or an Effort to Preserve the Old One?

July 25, 2012

At a first glance, the  sanctions recently imposed by the NCAA against Penn State appear to take the NCAA into new, uncharted terrain.  Will it set a precedent for how the NCAA will behave in the future?

“I can think of many, many other things that were problematic and to me unethical and did a great deal of damage to the educational balance and proper balances in higher education, and I don’t see the NCAA taking that initiative.”  That’s John R. Thelin, a professor of higher education history and public policy at the University of Kentucky, quoted in this morning’s Inside Higher Education.  He’s talking about athletic scandals at Auburn University, at Florida State University, and at dozens and dozens of other NCAA Division I universities.

It’s become increasingly clear (as I argued yesterday) that Penn State broke no specific NCAA rule, despite the NCAA having thousands of rules.  Instead, the charge against Penn State is that it allowed its athletic program to become dominant over the university’s academic mission.  But where is this not the case in Division I?  Where are football coaches paid less than university presidents or Nobel laureates? Where are coaches retained and rewarded for high graduation rates even if their teams only win half their games? Where are alumni boosters consistently prevented from lavishing favors (cars, money) on star recruits?  Where are sexual assault charges against athletic stars pursued as firmly and fairly as against other students?

There are two ways to read what the NCAA did in the case of Penn State.  One is to imagine that we are seeing a new, more vigilant NCAA, one that will use its authority to more aggressively insure that academics come first.

The other, and I believe much more likely alternative, is to see in the sanctions a bold effort by the NCAA to make sure nothing changes.  The Penn State case is sufficiently horrifying that it might spur real reform of college athletics by presidents and boards of trustees.  The NCAA felt it had to act boldly in order to preserve its role as the sole authority in intercollegiate athletics.  It is treating the Penn State case as an aberration because it doesn’t want anyone to see that the culture of ‘athletics does as it pleases’ is the norm among universities.

The NCAA will pray that there is not another scandal that will so command our attention that it must again act in this extraordinary and high-handed fashion.  But there will be another, and (sadly) soon, because there is no culture of restraint or professional ethics in Division I sports.

Today, two days after the sanctions were announced, and one day after they were endlessly discussed, the news is all about the coming raid of other universities on Penn State’s star football players.  USC and LSU, Alabama and Arkansas, and dozens of others, will try to entice Penn State players (shall we call them students?) to leave Penn State and come play for them.  There will be no self-restraint, and it will all be done (mostly) within the “rules.”  Athletics will continue to ‘do as it pleases.’

We are not seeing a new NCAA, just a desperate old one.

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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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One Response to A New NCAA? Or an Effort to Preserve the Old One?

  1. William Hayes says:

    Thanks for your insightful comments about the NCAA. I couldn’t agree more that the tail wags the dog in division IA sports, particularly football. After hearing that some students actually choose which college to attend on the basis of the school’s football “eminence”, I remembered a friend who used the same criterion to make his choice of professorial jobs. Our priorities are totally out of whack! Bill Hayes(whayes@albion.edu)

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