After losing institutional control, Penn State deserved a ban.
It’s been suggested in some quarters that the NCAA is less relevant as the governing body of collegiate sports today, in part because the sports themselves have become so powerful.
Conferences were realigned, TV networks were started, and a college football playoff system was adopted — all with limited input from the NCAA’s staff and top officials. Meanwhile, serious rules violations continued to plague member institutions, with the NCAA seemingly too weak or unwilling to challenge the status quo. NCAA President Mark Emmert, who took that position in 2010, clearly noticed.
“The integrity of collegiate athletics is seriously challenged today by rapidly growing pressures coming from many directions,” Emmert said in July 2011. “We have reached a point where incremental change is not sufficient to meet these challenges. I want us to act more aggressively and in a more comprehensive way than we have in the past. A few new tweaks of the rules won’t get the job done.”
Emmert made those comments with no knowledge of what would unfold just a few months later at Penn State University — an outstanding Big Ten academic institution that lost control of its storied football program with devastating results, especially for the victims of pedophile and former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.
Last week this page advocated for the so-called “death penalty” for the Penn State football program, and we continue to think at least a one-year football ban would have provided a more meaningful reality check for college sports had it been added to the penalties announced Monday.
That the NCAA failed to go that far was no surprise, however. A death penalty ban of one or more years would have been a major blow to the Big Ten, which operates its own highly profitable TV network largely on the strength of football. No doubt Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany — one of the most powerful voices in college football — reminded the NCAA of that fact while the organization was considering possible sanctions.
Nevertheless, no one can claim that Emmert and the NCAA’s executive committee failed to grasp the seriousness of the Penn State debacle. The NCAA moved quickly and decisively in the wake of the damning investigative report from former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh.
Make no mistake: The sanctions will decimate the Penn State football program for years to come.
No school in a conference as competitive as the Big Ten would be able to field a competitive team with the scholarship, transfer and financial penalties the NCAA handed down.
After his exhaustive investigation, Freeh concluded that Penn State’s largest challenge would be changing a campus culture that allowed Joe Paterno’s football program to control the university.
The penalties and ongoing litigation should force a cultural shift in Happy Valley — at least in the near term. But by stopping short of the death penalty, the NCAA missed an opportunity to prove to other institutions that it’s willing to level its harshest penalty when it’s obviously the most appropriate sentence.
The next time a coach or administrator involved in college sports is tempted to ignore criminal or unethical behavior to protect the image of a “too big to fail” athletic program, as Emmert himself put it, we hope they’ll remember the lessons learned from the Sandusky case.
Had the NCAA more fully recaptured its authority and relevance by temporarily shutting down Penn State football and keeping Beaver Stadium dark for at least a year, however, those lessons would have been even harder to ignore.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.