Commentary

NCAA better sanction administrators

If organization is going to jump in over its head, it should go all the way

Updated: July 13, 2012, 3:26 PM ET
By Jay Bilas | ESPN.com

On Nov. 17, 2011, the NCAA sent a sternly worded letter to Penn State in which NCAA president Mark Emmert inserted himself and the NCAA firmly into the middle of a case far beyond their level and reach. Emmert's letter cited bylaws and principles and threatened Penn State with sanctions for lack of institutional control, honesty and ethical conduct.

In sending that letter to Penn State, Emmert painted the NCAA into a corner.

[+] EnlargeFederal Judge Louis B. Freeh
William Thomas Cain/Getty ImagesLouis Freeh repeatedly emphasized the basic steps that should be taken to report an abuse case but were not taken at Penn State.

The Penn State scandal is far beyond the scope and reach of the NCAA, and there is little value in NCAA sanctions handed down far after the state and federal authorities have prosecuted cases against the perpetrators of this evil and after victims and aggrieved parties have sued for damages in civil court. This is a matter best left to the judicial system, not the NCAA rulebook and its ill-equipped committee on infractions.

The NCAA has a reputation for bruising and battering coaches and players but ignoring the actions, inactions and misuse of authority by presidents and other administrators. From the beginning, I have pointed my finger directly at Graham Spanier, and I have asked why nobody at the NCAA will do the same. Given former FBI director Louis Freeh's scathing report about the failure of Spanier, Gary Schultz, Tim Curley and Joe Paterno, it is time for the NCAA to point the finger at those who were charged with the leadership of one of its member institutions.

Emmert's letter was a public relations move that put him and the NCAA in a box. By forecasting action and demanding answers to four ridiculously broad questions (and reasserting this week that the NCAA is still awaiting and expects those answers), Emmert gave the impression that the NCAA meant business and could bring its fury down on Penn State. Now that Freeh has described how top athletic and university officials concealed Jerry Sandusky's behavior to avoid "bad publicity," even if that falls outside the traditional definition of "lack of institutional control," a failure to act could reflect badly upon Emmert and the NCAA.

If the NCAA feels compelled to stretch its bylaws to cover such a grave and serious matter, what exactly is the organization to do?

Its pattern over the years has been to punish prospectively. The NCAA rarely lays the blame at the feet of the actual wrongdoers. Rather, the NCAA seems fond of punishing those who remain behind, saddling them with sanctions that limit the ability of the blameless to move forward.

I have never felt this is fair or particularly effective. To sanction Penn State with a bowl ban, a television ban, loss of scholarships, loss of practice time or other penalties would do little or nothing to punish the monstrous behavior of Sandusky or the cowardly cover-up and indefensible inaction of Spanier, Schultz, Curley and Paterno.

Such sanctions would punish those left behind to clean up the mess, and they would further hamstring Penn State from moving forward and doing things the right way. Ironically, such sanctions could damage Penn State's ability to make money that ultimately would be available to victims.

The NCAA, instead, should sanction the actual wrongdoers in this case: Spanier, Schultz, Curley and Paterno. The sanctions should not be forward-looking but based upon the actual wrongs committed by each. Unfortunately, the NCAA rarely, if ever, takes such action with regard to administrators. Usually, such action is reserved for coaches and players. The NCAA never, and I mean never, takes action against one of its own, a university president. The university president is the one who is supposed to be in charge, and the one the NCAA repeatedly tells us is in charge. Yet the president is never held accountable.

Think about it. In the Miami scandal, then-basketball coach Frank Haith and current president Donna Shalala appeared in a photo with booster Nevin Shapiro, who has since said he committed a variety of major rules violations. Paul Dee, who was athletic director during much of the time the Ponzi schemer was donating to the program, later served as the chairman of the committee on infractions when it hammered Southern California. Guess who had to take a new job and remains under threat of NCAA sanction?

When players and coaches show up in pictures with questionable people, they're criticized for lack of judgment. (Shouldn't they have known all that was or could have been wrong?) When it is a president such as Shalala or an AD such as Dee, all other presidents and the NCAA remain silent, except to talk about the integrity of their peers.

Have you heard anyone within the NCAA structure question Spanier? The current NCAA president has mentioned, time and time again, how Paterno (among others) was fired for something other than losing and how encouraging that was. Yet the NCAA and its presidents remain silent on one of their own, Spanier, and lose credibility by the minute.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Michael R. Sisak/Icon SMIIf the NCAA is serious about this case, it could result in visible mention of Joe Paterno being removed from Penn State.

The NCAA routinely metes out harsh penalties to coaches and players for such transgressions as free tattoos, free meals, too many phone calls, too many textbooks and failing to be totally forthcoming regarding unofficial visits. Coaches and players are excoriated and sanctioned with far less substantial (and often flimsy) evidence than we have seen in the Penn State matter. The NCAA has swiftly and harshly punished coaches with "show cause" orders and mandates to "disassociate" players and boosters from the university.

In addition, the NCAA has been quick to vacate the wins and accomplishments of teams that played, knowingly or not, an ineligible player. The NCAA has vacated (or accepted self-imposed sanctions vacating) wins, seasons, bowl games and Final Fours for far less than the horrors proven beyond a reasonable doubt at Penn State.

Because of these precedents, if the NCAA does take action against Penn State, it should mandate that Penn State vacate wins and records of the football program during the time frame of the cover-up and force Penn State to disgorge profits earned in that same time period.

If the NCAA acts consistently and applies the same punishment it has given to past offending players and coaches, it should mandate that Penn State disassociate itself from Spanier, Schultz and Curley. In addition, all should be subject to "show cause" orders, perhaps for life, and NCAA member institutions that wish to hire them would have to show cause why they should be allowed to do so without sanction.

As distasteful as it seems, given his stature, the school also should be told to disassociate from Paterno, which would mean Penn State would have to take Paterno's name off of the library, the stadium and the Hall of Fame and out of the Penn State record books. The NCAA has mandated that member institutions disassociate from players in similar fashion. Why not an offending coach, from whom more should be expected than a college kid?

Notwithstanding the fact that these extraordinary sanctions would seem meaningless when compared with the punishments to be handed down by the court system, such steps would place the blame where it belongs rather than laying it at the feet of the Penn State program going forward. And, even though I disagree with prior actions taken by the NCAA and its judicial process, it would match NCAA precedent. Further, disassociating from Spanier would mean that the NCAA finally would have sanctioned one of its own, a fellow president.

If the NCAA wants to insert itself into this case but is unwilling to apply such sanctions to administrators, then perhaps disassociation, vacating records and disgorgement of profits should be reconsidered in other cases, or put out to pasture entirely. If they do not apply to what these men failed to do at Penn State, perhaps they should not apply in any case.

Jay Bilas

College Basketball analyst