Commentary

NCAA deals unprecedented blow

Originally Published: July 23, 2012
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- I have to admit, I expected NCAA president Mark Emmert to march out in military uniform, epaulets gleaming, and pronounce that he should be addressed as Generalissimo.

That press release Sunday, in which the NCAA announced that it would hand down punitive and corrective penalties to Penn State on Monday without its Committee on Infractions ever calling a meeting to order, sounded like the worst form of administrative justice. As anyone who has ever followed an infractions case knows, the NCAA may not use due process, but there is a process that evolves in due time. It can make the tortoise look like the hare -- ask USC. But the NCAA president is not a commissioner. He doesn't wield the imperial power of a Roger Goodell.

[+] EnlargeMark Emmert and Ed Ray
AP Photo/Michael Conroy Oregon State University president Ed Ray and NCAA president Mark Emmert made history Monday.

The announcement Sunday indicated that the NCAA would ignore its own rules -- not just the procedures but the entirety of the rulebook. Generalissimo Emmert had created his own shopping mall of justice -- a Banana Republic and a Gap. There was all the enforcement that came before Penn State, and there was Penn State.

You can read the hundreds of pages of the NCAA manual from now until the Nittany Lions run onto the field to play Ohio on Sept. 1, and you won't find a single rule that Penn State violated in this case. If that doesn't mean anything, why have a rulebook?

But then His Excellency spoke Monday morning, and it became clear why the NCAA came down so harshly so quickly on Penn State. Emmert and the university presidents who form the NCAA's executive committee saw this case as unprecedented. They saw that it had nothing to do with rules infractions. They saw the model of intercollegiate athletics as we know it at stake.

"There remains a sense of urgency in resolving this case, period," Emmert said. "It wasn't driven by the fall semester or the upcoming football season. The timing was simply that, following the work of both the criminal investigators and the Freeh report, the information was there. There was no compelling reason to delay the process."

"It was a unanimous sense," Oregon State president Ed Ray, the chair of the executive committee, said Monday. "We needed to act, and we needed to act quickly and effectively."

Every 20 years or so, university presidents rise from their slumber and reassert that they are in charge of the balls and the shoulder pads. In the early '90s, they reacted to the SMU death penalty by overhauling the NCAA structure. And now, in a visceral reaction to the Penn State scandal, the executive committee has leveled the harshest penalties short of the SMU case in NCAA history.

The presidents felt as if they are at war with an alien culture in which football made the decisions and the university kowtowed to it. That is antithetical to everything that the NCAA model represents, and a little too close to the truth for presidents to stomach. The smart ones live with the hypocrisy every day, secure in the knowledge that athletics unite the university community and create a spirit that builds buildings and fills laboratories.

When that hypocrisy resulted in a pedophile remaining at large, the university presidents didn't like what they saw, especially in the mirror. They lashed out as if they had been attacked.

As statements go, a $60 million fine, 40 scholarships, a four-year bowl ban and 112 vacated wins is right up there with the Magna Carta. The presidents put down new stakes on their property line. They are in charge. The importance of that principle supersedes any other consideration. If the Penn State players want to play in a bowl, they can leave their coaches and their classes and their friends and go somewhere else. (This case may be unprecedented, but as usual in the NCAA model, the current Penn State coaches and players are the victims of their predecessors' actions.)

Moreover, the culture the presidents attacked at Penn State no longer exists. What is left of Penn State is not a combatant. Former president Graham Spanier has been fired and disgraced. Former vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley will be on trial for perjury. Joe Paterno's memory has been stained, a scar bandaged in chain-link fencing where his statue once stood. The university will be in hock for millions in liability payments to the victims abused on its campus and because of its failure to see what is in plain view in hindsight.

It remains possible that the Freeh report didn't come down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets. The NCAA famously doesn't have subpoena power, yet it acted before the three central figures in the Penn State case who are still living have the opportunity to defend themselves -- and speak publicly -- in court. The Paterno family maintains that the whole story has not emerged.

The principle that the presidents are defending, that they are in charge, is worth defending. Nothing would have been lost if they had waited long enough for the remaining avenues to be explored.

Emmert and the presidents didn't care to wait. Let's hope that their impatience doesn't get in the way of their intentions.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com