Commentary

'Worst' scandals or 'latest' scandals?

Failure of those in power to oversee programs will happen again and again

Updated: July 18, 2012, 1:53 PM ET
By Jemele Hill | ESPN.com

The house-cleaning continues at Florida A&M University after a student died in November following a hazing ritual involving members of the school's well-renown marching band.

[+] EnlargeJames Ammons
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreFormer FAMU president James Ammons received complaints about hazing years before a band member died.

FAMU president James Ammons, who previously announced he would retire in October, abruptly resigned Monday -- a month after the school's trustees passed a no-confidence motion regarding Ammons' performance by an 8-4 vote.

That brings the official tally in Tallahassee to this: The band is indefinitely suspended; former band director Julian White retired in March after a brief suspension; the 11 people facing felony charges and the two others arrested on misdemeanor counts in connection with drum major Robert Champion's death must stand trial.

But will there ever be true closure? That seems unlikely since the real problem is almost impossible to fix.

The nature of the scandals are drastically different, but there are parallels to be drawn between Penn State and FAMU as both schools attempt to salvage their reputations, realign their priorities and somehow reclaim the public's trust.

The officials in charge were more concerned about preserving the sanctity of their prized possession -- football and the marching band -- than the welfare of children and students. A toxic culture existed in both places that produced irreversible results.

But as we crucify these universities for their lack of decency, we need to be careful about assuming that what happened at FAMU and Penn State could never happen elsewhere.

The oversight issues uncovered in both places are widespread in college athletics. The NCAA can't fix those issues by imposing the death penalty on Penn State football and FAMU can't by banning its band permanently -- even though a strong case can be made that both programs deserve that fate.

And NCAA president Mark Emmert knows it.

"This is completely different than an impermissible benefits scandal like happened at SMU or anything else we've dealt with," Emmert told PBS' Tavis Smiley in an interview that aired Monday. "This is as systemic a cultural problem as it is a football problem."

Let's widen the lens. The Freeh report proved Joe Paterno was well aware that Jerry Sandusky -- who could spend eternity in prison and it wouldn't make up for the lives he ruined -- was suspected of child molestation in 1998 yet when assistant Mike McQueary told Paterno in 2001 that he witnessed Sandusky sexually assaulting a young boy in the shower, Paterno used his influence to discourage Penn State officials from going to the authorities.

Paterno's actions were inexcusable and exposed a level of self-preservation that was sickening.

But were his actions any different than Jim Tressel's?

Tressel knowingly broke NCAA rules for one simple reason: He wanted to win. He kept quiet about his Ohio State players -- including star quarterback Terrelle Pryor -- receiving improper benefits. He misled OSU's compliance officials about what he knew concerning his players' conduct, even though he had been tipped off that they were doing something wrong.

Receiving free tattoos isn't on the same level as disregarding abused children, but if big-time NCAA coaches are willing to lie about the little things, Paterno has shown what some of them will do when faced with a bigger test.

It's not just coaches, but administrators, athletic directors and college presidents too. It's all a part of an enabling culture that time and again covers up the worst behavior.

The Associated Press reviewed hundreds of pages of records involving the FAMU marching band, which revealed that the band had been repeatedly warned about hazing and that, since 2007, nearly two dozen incidents involving the band, fraternities and other student groups had been investigated.

[+] EnlargeGraham Spanier and Joe Paterno
AP Photo/Gene PuskarFormer Penn State president Graham Spanier and other officials deferred to coach Joe Paterno.

Many of those emails were sent to Ammons from concerned parents of band members. One parent wrote Ammons that his son left FAMU after two years and struggled with personal problems.

"It was the worst decision in his life to go to FAMU," the parent wrote to Ammons.

That was in 2007 -- four years before Champion's death.

Considering that FAMU's band has performed for U.S. presidents, at Super Bowls and on other grand stages, it was frighteningly convenient to dismiss those parents who feared for their children's safety.

Let the band play on. Keep the checks coming.

It also must have been easy in 2008 for University of Miami president Donna Shalala to accept a $50,000 check from shady booster Nevin Shapiro, who had reportedly challenged Miami's compliance director to a fight in the Orange Bowl press box in 2007, and not ask too many questions about the booster's relationship with Miami's football team, which allegedly included providing a multitude of players with improper benefits.

There will always be debate over how severely schools should be punished for their misdeeds and corruption. The NCAA is somewhat equipped to handle that kind of micro problem, but what can they really do to attack the macro issues -- namely the rampant deference to powerful teams (and bands) even in the face of immorality?

Penn State just might be the worst scandal in college sports history. But is it the worst, or just the latest?

Jemele Hill | email

ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine

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