The NCAA Withdraws Its Unethical Sanctions On Penn State

Paterno  Statue

To clear our palates of the nasty aftertaste from the welter of Ethics Train Wrecks crashing though our skulls of late, I thought it might be calming to note the latest settling of the wreckage from one of the worst ETW’s of them all: the Jerry Sandusky-Joe Paterno-Penn State Express.

Yesterday, the NCAA prematurely lifted its remaining sanctions on Penn State, deceptively declaring a victory and retreating because its sanctions were about to be declared illegal. I’m not going to write as much as I normally would about this, because I’d like to send you here, to Glenn Logan’s blog A Sea of Blue, where he covers the matter superbly. Glenn is a longtime visitor at eEthics Alarms, but his own blog keeps him too busy to comment as often as he once did. Not only is he ethically astute and a fine writer, he also is one of the rare bloggers who engages his commenters on a regular basis, a practice I obviously endorse.

When the NCAA decided to ignore its charter and the limits of its powers to slap Penn State with draconian punishment for conduct that had less to do with college athletics and more to do with the ability of a role model’s ability to corrupt a culture, I called it a capitulation to the mob, and wrote…

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.

Glenn picks up the baton where I left it, writing…

“The NCAA had no business involving itself in what was essentially a personnel and legal matter that should have been left to the legal authorities, the university, and the state of Pennsylvania. The NCAA’s raison d’être is not to punish all immoral conduct within athletics programs, but to ensure fair competition between its member schools. It is left to the schools to discipline employees and officials under its control who are not coaches or players.

Virtually all the NCAA’s rules were set up with that in mind, but in the case of Penn State, they decided to use them as a public relations tool to satisfy those who refused to accept Penn State competing after the awful revelations of abuse that were uncovered during the process. Ending what I consider to be a lawless action prematurely can only be an unalloyed good, even if the net effect may not accomplish what should have been the objective goal.”

That last certainly seems to be the case.  After the ban was lifted, deliriously happy Penn State students demonstrated, rallied and chanted, many of them demanding that the monument to Paterno, which was taken down because, he, you know, allowed children to be sexually molested by a predator so no embarrassment would come to his beloved football program, be returned to a place of honor. (I didn’t want it taken down, but not for the reasons these warped kids want it put back up.)

The place is still sick, and Joe Paterno was the contagion. Nevertheless, the NCAA was wrong.

Now go read Glenn, please.

(All right, I did write as much as usual.)


Sources: Deadspin, ABC, A Sea of Blue

5 thoughts on “The NCAA Withdraws Its Unethical Sanctions On Penn State

  1. At the time I was ready to call for the complete disbandment of the Penn State football program, with MAYBE the possibility of its reconstitution ten years later IF it could prove sufficient safeguards were in place for preventing this type of thing again. That said, that was probably a reaction in anger to the fact that CHILD RAPE had happened on Paterno’s watch, indeed the whole administration’s watch, and I thought that the university deserved to be hit where it hurt most, in the wallet, and if current students got hurt, too bad. I still think the NCAA should have stuck to its guns here and not lifted the sanctions early, because now it looks squishy, but it was in fact a lynch mob in the first place that got them put in place.

  2. (My sarcasm should be self-evident.)

    The Penn State situation is paradigmatic. On the one hand, it is another reminder that institutions are incapable of adequately policing themselves, whether it is the Catholic Church (Cardinal Law), the federal judiciary (the Breyer Report; the Manuel Real discipline case), or Penn State’s insanely profitable football program. Ethical behavior requires uncommon courage, and an important institution can be expected to elevate appearance above substance in almost every instance. It is better to appear clean than to be clean.

    On the other hand, institutions that don’t have legitimate power to act often attempt to move heaven and earth in order TO act. It is better to appear to uphold a high standard of ethics than to act ethically.

    I don’t know whether Gov. Corbett’s lawsuit would have succeeded, but it seems that the NCAA does. Whenever an institution is caught out, you can bet the house as to what will happen next. Memo to Roger Goodell: At least, Nixon had the good sense to erase the damned tape.

    If we couldn’t laugh, we’d cry.

    • The laughing part comes from the amazing discussions over whether the NFL saw the tape or not. I guess if a Ford’s Theater security videotape had surfaced showing Booth actually firing the derringer into Lincoln’s head, we’d REALLY know what happened, Booth leaping from the box to the stage, Lincoln slumping over, that bullet hole, “Sic Semper Tyrannis!”, Booth’s confession, Lincoln dying and the rest not being sufficient to piece it together.

  3. This one is right down your alley, as it is remarkably analogous to the Penn State scandal. Judge Richard Kopf writes on his blog regarding the federal judge who Rice’d his wife:

    “Judge Fuller got a sweet deal when prosecutors allowed him to enter some type of diversion program that will allow him to erase his criminal conviction for beating the crap out of his wife in a fancy hotel room while reeking with booze. See here and here for recent coverage (with a hat tip to How Appealing).”

    The first thing that jumps out at me is how the judicial system coddles its own. When even a fellow judge admits it was a sweet deal, it was a sweet deal. The kind you or I would have no chance of getting.

    Second, the Judge makes an NCAA-style plea: “If Judge Fuller won’t resign, the Chief Judge of the Circuit and the Circuit Judicial Council should strip of him handling cases for as long as the law allows.” Why? Because by God, we have to DO something!!!

    Smacking your wife around in a drunken stupor probably doesn’t qualify as a high crime or misdemeanor, and one stray transgression says little about your ability to try cases. Worse yet, the worst the Judicial Council can do to the man is give him a paid vacation. Ray Rice should get a deal that sweet.

    But let’s say that they strip him of his caseload for three years, but he does not resign because it beats working. If yours is the first case he gets after his sabbatical, he’s going to be rusty, and the questions about his judgment don’t really go away. While we would agree that the NCAA overstepped its authority, what should the Judicial Council do? Is Judge Kopf’s counsel unethical and if not, why not?

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