Hypocrites of the Year: The NCAA

Emmert: “Never again will the NCAA be blamed for the results of the culture we encourage and support. We hope.” (Or words to that effect.)

What’s wrong with the NCAA’s epic sanctions against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky pederasty scandal? I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days, and I’ve concluded that the answer is “Just about everything.”

Most of the focus of the media and pundits have been on the “punishing the innocent” complaint. As a general rule, I detest aversion to punishing the innocent as a justification for inadequately punishing the guilty or otherwise avoiding necessary steps to address problems; it’s a rationalization for encouraging unethical, exploitive, illegal and even deadly conduct. This toxic rationale has caused incalculable harm across the globe; it currently abets illegal immigration, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and the international crimes of dictators. The United States, within our lifetimes, may drive itself into financial collapse by adopting the theory that it is unfair and unethical to “punish” the expectant beneficiaries of entitlements that the nation can no longer afford by reducing  benefits, or by taxing wealthy citizens who opposed the profligate spending in the first place. As Ethics Bob writes in his post about the Penn State sanctions,

“Accountability for wrongdoing often brings down the innocent along with the guilty. Think about the workers at Enron, Arthur Anderson, or MCI-Worldcom, who lost their jobs when their bosses’ malfeasance destroyed their companies… there is no way of punishing the guilty without harming people close to, or dependent on them. Even a mass murderer–when he is sent away his mother suffers along with him. When Al Qaeda militants are killed, their family members often die with them.”

Bob isn’t making an invalid “everybody does it,” argument, but a practical, “that’s the way the world works” argument.  If we believe in accountability, we have to accept the fact that the innocent will often be collateral damage. It isn’t fair, but this is utilitarianism at its most persuasive. Allowing wrongdoers to  prosper is ethically worse.

If the NCAA sanctions against Penn State were otherwise appropriate, I wouldn’t have a problem with the collateral damage. They aren’t appropriate, however. The sanctions are unethical.

1. It is mob justice. Sportswriters and pundits were clamoring for action to be taken against Penn State beyond what the law had to offer, because they were convinced that a few criminal verdicts and a dozen or more multi-million dollar civil suits, national embarrassment, and devastation to the school’s image and reputation won’t be enough. They are right: it isn’t enough, just as no punishment in the offing for the Aurora movie theater killer is “enough” to compensate his victims and their families. But the law can’t make up new laws after the fact to try to address that problem, which is another “that’s the way the world works” fact of life. Unethical conduct that doesn’t break laws has to be condemned and discouraged by society and the culture, and maybe even needs to be made illegal, but it is unjust and unfair to make it illegal after the conduct has taken place. If we allow that, then none of us are safe, for we can never know by what legal standards we may be judged and punished.

There is a dangerous level of support in our culture for such ad hoc punishment these days, and it is cause for a serious ethics alarm. We see it in Occupy Wall Street’s call for banking and investment managers to be jailed regardless of whether they actually broke any laws. We see it in the rush to prosecute and punish  George Zimmerman regardless of whether he has a legitimate self-defense claim. Here is the key fact to consider in the Penn State case: Penn State has broken no NCAA rules whatsoever. Yet the NCAA

  • Fined the school $60 million,
  • Imposed a four-year postseason ban on Penn State football,
  • Significantly reduced the number of scholarship players the team can field over the next four years,
  • Placed the program on probation for five years and enabled any current or incoming player to transfer and play immediately without restriction.

Why? Because lots of people said they should, and because they could get away with it.  That’s not a sufficient reason to violate the principle that punishment should be based on rules and laws that exist before they are violated. And allowing mob justice to prevail is always a dangerous and irresponsible precedent to set.

2. It is an abuse of power. My analogy? A kid does something horrible at home that the law can’t punish and the parents won’t, so the high school principal expels him, impounds his car, and punches him in the face.

I have written here that the Sandusky horror was, contrary to Joe Paterno’s pleas, very much related to football, but it had absolutely nothing to do with the playing of the games, the recruitment of players, or anything else the NCAA exists to oversee. Again, that everyone wants to watch Penn State get punched in the face, that the school “deserves” to be savaged, and that the NCAA sanctions will give the illusion of justice are all irrelevant. This isn’t the NCAA’s job, their jurisdiction, or their decision to make. Again, they can get away with it, because Penn State is in no position to challenge a wrongful set of sanctions for the school’s abetting a child molester without making itslef look even worse than it already does. So the NCAA can abuse its power because its victim can’t fight back. That’s the definition of bullying, my friends.

3. The sanctions are hypocritical, and cynically self-serving.  NCAA President Mark Emmert said, regarding the sanctions, that:

“…what we can do is impose sanctions that both reflect the magnitude of these terrible acts and that also ensure that Penn State will rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry. Our goal is not to just be punitive, but to make sure the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mind-set in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.”, was what took place at Penn State during the years in which Sandusky was found to be abusing young boys, and that was exactly the sort of environment he hopes these sanctions will deter.”

Coming from the NCAA, this is infuriating, vomit-inducing or laughable, depending on your gag reflex. While Penn State is an extreme case, the culture on college campuses that elevates sports above academics and sports-generated income above principles and ethics has been nurtured and is still nurtured by the NCAA.  I don’t agree with Taylor Branch’s conclusion in his piece in the Atlantic, but the rotten culture in college sports encouraged by the NCAA comes through loud and clear. Why isn’t the NCAA fining itself?  The answer is obvious: lowering the boom on Penn Sate is a classic cognitive dissonance ploy. By aligning itself against a publicly-reviled villain, the NCAA looks virtuous by comparison. Maybe this will take some of the heat off, the NCAA reasons. Meanwhile, some NCAA members in good standing pay their football or basketball coaches more than they do any professor, dean or their school’s president. But never mind that: the sanctions against Penn State ensure that “football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.”

Sure they do.

[ You can read blogger Rick Jones’ different route to the same conclusion here.]


Spark and Source: Ethics Bob

Facts: Washington Post

Source: The Atlantic

Graphic: Think Progress

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

8 thoughts on “Hypocrites of the Year: The NCAA

  1. What’s the line? “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

    I can’t disagree with anything you’ve said. However, as the other schools have their football programs up on a pedestal and protecting their players, coaches and staffs for whatever their transgressions are – this sends a loud and clear message – Don’t trample whistle-blowers and don’t think your program is untouchable.

    I think I had the same thought or sentiment with regards to the NFL & Saints.

  2. The NCAA is one of the worst organizations in sports. They have no moral authority to punish anyone. Yet Penn State needed to be punished. My preference would have been self sanctions, but it was clear that they were incapable of policing themselves, or simply failed to see the forest through the trees. To allow them to continue playing football unabated, would have been equally unethical. So while I take no issue with your pronouncement as to the ethical nature of the sanctions, I honestly can’t tell you that they bother me. Perhaps I’m simply part of the mob. The link below is an article from the Indianapolis Star that expands on some of your arguments….

  3. Jack, your analysis is right on the money. And I commend you for having the courage to write this, especially when people’s emotions are so understandably inflamed. But you’re right, laws can’t be made up after the fact, and mob rule isn’t a sufficient or acceptable justification for serving arbitrary punishments–especially given that Penn State did not violate. any NCAA rules. Guilty parties are accountable to the legal system, and to civil lawsuits; that is the exercise of law.

  4. THESE guys are the Hypocrites of the year??? Not by a long shot!

    I agree with the large % of the post Jack, but this ‘Hypocritical Attitude’ permeates just about every corner of our culture, our political dealings, the way we treat each other – I address this Negative ‘Structure of Thought’ in my latest post about the Penn State and Libor Scandal similarities here, Screwing the Little Guys which, with all the attitudes you describe in the article, is exactly what is happening in the world today.

    Sandusky Literally “Screwed Little Guys” – Bullies do the same – and that is what the Banksters are doing to all of us. It’s not that big a reach, as I diagram with the graphic at the end of my piece. It is, in my opinion, an actual direction we are heading, towards the Negative.

  5. Regarding the NCAA’s abuse of power, is this really true?
    “…[The NCAA] can get away with it, because Penn State is in no position to challenge a wrongful set of sanctions for the school’s abetting a child molester without making itself look even worse than it already does.”

    Can they, really? What happens if the university does not pay the fine? Who is robbing, and who is being robbed? For that amount ($60 million), it sure seems like it would be worth balking and going to court.

  6. When I look at the NCAA, I don’t know how you separate this hypocrisy from their everyday business. If you spend any time on a college campus, you see the violations. If NCAA regulations were upheld, there would be no revenue-generating sports left, they all should be shut down. The only times sanctions are applied is when the violations become too public and it becomes an embarrassment. Penalties are then applied according to the severity of the PR damage to the NCAA. The published regulations are just for show, the only real rule seems to be “don’t get caught and make us look bad.”. In this, the Penn State incident is completely consistent with past actions by the NCAA.

    • Sadly, I agree with everything you say Michael – and this attitude of unaccountability and cloaking of unethical behavior permeates every facet of our civilization, starting from the Top Down. I believe people are inherently good – but when you join any organization, it’s “Be a good German” and just follow the orders. In politics, the worst of behaviors are rewarded with advancement to more power, and the ability to quash any person who might get in the way.

  7. In writing about the NCAA sanctions, William A. Levinson cites Henry Ford .

    Henry Ford knew your kind quite well, and he wrote of them in “My Life and Work:”

    “…a foreman knows as well as he knows his own name that if he has been unjust it will be very quickly found out, and he shall no longer be a foreman. One of the things that we will not tolerate is injustice of any kind. The moment a man starts to swell with authority he is discovered, and he goes out, or goes back to a machine.”

    The Ford Motor Company enjoyed unprecedented success because, among other reasons, it did not tolerate your behavior even in a straw boss, the lowest supervisory position. Now the NCAA needs to apply Henry Ford’s advice to you before you destroy its ability to regulate college athletics in any way, shape, and form.

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