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NCAA out of Bounds in Sanctioning Penn State September 20, 2012

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Sports.
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Back-up placekicker Sam Ficken for Penn State, walking off the field dejected in losing on the road to Virginia. Ficken was the Nittany Lions’ back-up kicker, as their erstwhile starting kicker transferred to the University of Texas amid the chaos in Happy Valley.

Anybody who is remotely aware of the major developments in the world of big-time sports, specifically college football, has no doubt heard the news about the mountain of sanctions that the NCAA has arbitrarily heaped onto the once-vaunted football program of Pennsylvania State University, a.k.a., Penn State.  These sanctions include a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason bowl ban, a Draconian reduction in scholarships (10 initial, 20 total each year for four years), and, to add insult to injury, vacate all the wins during the late Joe Paterno’s tenure dating back to 1998 – the year when the bulk of the child abuses perpetrated by then-assistant coach Jerry Sandusky were first internally known among some staff members.

Before the discussion proceeds any further, be it known and understood that I carry no water for Penn State.  As a graduate of a Big 10 Conference rival, I had no love for a team that beat us in all the years that we played them during my time as a college student.  Furthermore, I make no apologies for the stubborn refusal of JoePa to plan and execute his own exit strategy, which he should have done a full decade before his sudden and long-overdue ouster in 2011.  Most importantly, this not in any way to rationalize the evils perpetrated by Sandusky, nor to be insensitive to the undue emotional and spiritual scarring wrought upon the innocent young victims.

But what did these evils themselves have to do with the football program at large?  Sandusky was found guilty of these heinous crimes in the court of law, and awaits a sentence that will surely be tantamount to spending the rest of his life in prison.  He has not been directly affiliated with the program since the end of the 1999 season.  Moreover, Paterno has not only ceased to the head coach at PSU – a position he held for more than four decades – but he is deceased.  The two individuals to whom legitimate blame for these evils is warranted – the perpetrator in Sandusky and the enabler in Paterno – are either in jail or are underneath the sod (in this case, respectively!).

The point is, the crimes that were done by Sandusky and on Paterno’s watch were transgressions of the legal nature, and were punished in the legal realm.  Whatever further punishment awaits both in the next life is a matter for the theologians to debate.  But this had nothing to do with NCAA ethics.  And is that not the grounds for which this august governing body for collegiate athletics metes out its punishment to member athletics departments?

The NCAA, in their supposed magnanimity, allowed for players currently on the roster of the Penn State football team to transfer to other programs without being forced to sit out for year.  Under normal circumstances, players on a Division 1A (pardon me, Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS) program who choose to transfer to another school/team have to sit out for one season, unless they transfer to a Division 1AA program (pardon me, Football Championship Subdivision, or FCS).  For example, if a player is on the roster at, say, the University of Cincinnati, he feels as though he is not a good fit after all, and decides to play elsewhere, he could transfer, to say, Eastern Kentucky University, and play immediately.  Not so if he were to transfer to, say, the University of Toledo, or Kent State, the University of Kentucky, or of Louisville, and expect to play immediately, for the NCAA mandates that such a lateral transfer requires the given student to sit out for a year.

At least the governing body in question had the decency to recognize that the current players on the team had nothing to do with the aforementioned evils, and should be let off the proverbial hook so they could continue to be in a position to reap the rewards that winning effort on the field allows.  For they have waived the traditional transfer rule and have allowed current PSU players to go to other FBS teams that have a chance to go to a bowl game, thus leaving Penn State in a further weakened state than it already is.  At least ten players have taken up the NCAA on this offer, and have transferred elsewhere, notably to Illinois, to Florida, to Texas, N.C. State, even to Cal and USC.

All this leaves the Penn State program in a severely weakened state.  The players worth any count have been given the option to seek greener pastures, and have naturally done so.  The remaining players are, according to reason, less skilled, and the performance on the field – losing at home to Ohio U at home and to Virginia on the road – with a back-up kicker missing key field goals (the starting kicker wisely fled to join the Texas Longhorns, whose collective star is on the re-rise).

To sum things up, the program is $60 million poorer, bereft of its more-skilled players, and unable to attract players worth any count for the next four years at least on account of both losing some of its scholarships to offer, to say nothing of no prospects of a post-season bowl game for that length of time, no matter how well the team does in the regular season.  In short, the NCAA essentially gave them a walking death penalty.  The only reason that Penn State acquiesced to these stringent terms is that if PSU did not, the NCAA would have given them the real thing, according to the new president of the university, Rodney Erickson.

The only time the NCAA handed down the “death penalty” to a football program (where the program is not allowed to even field a team and play that sport for an entire season) was to SMU in 1987.  The ruling’s reasons, according to NCAA investigators, were, among others, an under-the-table slush fund given to Mustang players, $61,000 total, to be exact.  SMU forewent fielding a team for 1988 as well.  Contrast that with the Nevin Shapiro booster scandal at the University of Miami (Fla.) that came to light in 2011.  According to Shapiro’s own admissions in numerous jailhouse interviews (currently, he is serving a prison term for a $930 million Ponzi scheme), he provided U of Miami football players with “cash, prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and, on one occasion, an abortion.”

In both the case of SMU as well as Miami, clear recruiting and player compensation violations took place:  ethical violations that warranted/warrant NCAA punishment to those programs.  Yet Nevin Shapiro’s egregious violations make the SMU slush fund pale in comparison, yet the NCAA has yet to hand down any sanctions whatsoever to “The U.”

Meanwhile, no evidence has yet surfaced regarding the crimes of Jerry Sandusky and the tacit enabling of them by Joe Paterno having any bearing at all on recruiting violations, player compensation, or even cruelty towards players, or any other act which would legally and ethically warrant such Draconian punishment from the NCAA.

As mentioned before, the perpetrator and enablers are long gone from the University.  Sandusky awaits his prison sentence, Paterno is under the sod, and anybody else connected to Joe[Grand]Pa, including the former athletics director and even the former university president himself, both former players under Paterno, have been summarily dismissed.  Penn State has a new head football coach, a new A.D., and also a new president of this highly respected university.  They are earnestly trying to “grow new grass,” so to speak.  Why punish them, not to mention the players who have commendably made up their minds to commit their college-playing eligibility to this institution in the wake of these horrifying scandals?  Why punish the 107,000+ fans who show up at Beaver Stadium on Saturdays in the Fall?  Why punish the millions of Nittany Lion faithful over the actions of a few individuals whose violations were strictly within the legal realm, and had nothing to do with NCAA infractions?

At this time of PSU’s darkest hours, I would advise the rest of the Big Ten fan bases not to dance on the Nittany Lions’ grave.  A weakened Penn State means a weakened Big 10 Conference, this at a time when cold weather programs are increasingly at a competitive disadvantage in terms of recruiting the best players nationwide, hence are struggling to be credible contenders for national titles.  It also means weakened intra-conference competition, something that could affect other conference teams’ strength of schedules and possibly their national rankings.  A strong PSU team would mean the opposite of these potential problems.

If the sages in Indianapolis dictated that the $60 million fine go to programs that work to prevent child abuse and molestation, that would be a fitting penalty that all parties concerned could embrace.  But instead, a bunch of detached elitists decided to proceed much further than necessary and bring hard times to a proud university, to a state, and to its national fan base.  Shame on the NCAA for unduly and arbitrarily forcing Penn State’s football program into an induced coma.  Sanctions towards other programs guilty of actual violations within their jurisdiction are warranted but remain to be administered.  The governing body has some explaining to do for this clear double-standard.

As an aside, the new head coach has yet to get the hint that part of “growing new grass” means a clean break from those blindingly generic uniforms.  Nameplates on the back of the jerseys are not enough.  Bill O’Brien worked in the NFL long enough to understand what a helmet logo decal looks like.   It will be interesting to see if and when he eventually gets the hint and starts having some football-shaped Nittany Lion logo decals affixed to the sides of those mind-numbingly generic white helmets.  If these horrific developments do not sound the clarion call for Penn State to ditch those horribly generic unis once and for all, what will?

WWWD (What would Woody do)? November 14, 2011

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How would Woody have done it?  That is a popular question to ask in Columbus, Ohio, and throughout the Buckeye State.  It can be a very effective conversation-starter in that part of the country, though beware of the side-effect of it possibly sparking some not-so-civil debates, too.  But it may seem like an odd question to ask in the wake of the earth-shaking scandal at conference neighbor Penn State, a controversy so huge it has already resulted not only in the immediate termination of 46-year head coach Joe Paterno, but also in that athletics director Tim Curley has been placed on administrative leave, as he is charged with perjury and failure to report a crime, not to mention the resignation of the university president himself.  In case you have been under a rock for the past eight days or so, long-time Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who mysteriously retired from coaching at age 55 in 1999, has been charged with molesting a total of eight young boys (that we know of) over the past 15 years.

In hindsight, it has been alleged that Sandusky’s retirement at that relatively early age came about because this perverted proclivity of his was an obvious liability to the program, and was quietly nudged out.  Still, for the past 12 years, not only has Sandusky been allowed back on campus, but was granted practically unlimited access to the football facilities (locker room, weight
room, you name it) and was on campus frequently as part of his non-profit organization that he established to help at-risk youth – commendable thing by itself, to be sure.

If I do a little rudimentary arithmetic, 2011 minus 15 equals 1996.  Yet Sandusky was not gently nudged out until 1999, three years later.  That alone does not seem right.  So I come back to my original inquiry:  how would Woody have handled it?  Given his hard-nosed, no-nonsense demeanor, one can surmise two possible scenarios.

Scenario A:  Upon learning the news that Woody has a sick pervert on his staff, Woody, barges into that coach’s office, confronts him point-blank, with the upshot that said coach has 15 minutes to clear out his office before he calls campus security, and follows up with the ultimatum that said coach better not do so much as come within a hundred yards of the campus ever again, or there shall be hell to pay.

Scenario B:  Instead of the pedophile coach being charged with child molestation, Woody would be charged with manslaughter, for many a red-blooded American male would find it to be his manly duty to dispatch with the pervert himself with one’s own bare hands.

The reason I mention Woody at all in the wake of these now-discovered, hideous, though alleged, evils on the part of Jerry Sandusky is there is some commonality with the late Wayne Woodrow Hayes and Joe[Grand]Pa.  Both are/were larger-than-life figures for their respective programs.  Both have/had won national championships.  Moreover, both have been known, either publicly or privately, as uncompromising, my-way-or-the-highway leaders, and both careers ended in scandal, albeit to varying degrees.

But an even bigger reason for mentioning Hayes at a time like this is that both he and Paterno are considered “old school.”  The aforementioned “scenarios” are surely commensurate with an “old school” solution to having such a pervert in one’s midst.  Unfortunately in this case, those are not the only two old school scenarios out there.  Even more unfortunately, Paterno chose old
school Scenario C:  keep it quiet, and sweep it under the rug.  Not really a good idea back then, and a horrible one in these modern times.

The rationalizations for Paterno not dealing with this problem in a more direct manner are fairly diverse, among those being “maybe he did not know.”  Puh-leeze.  As a former staff member on a Big Ten football team, I have witnessed first-hand the long hours the head coach and his assistants alike work for months on end.  A coaching staff in D-1 college football becomes a very closely-knit bunch.  There is no physical way on this Earth that the other coaches did not know about Sandusky’s alleged perversion.  Anyone to suggest otherwise knows nothing about the social nature and the demands of the profession.

Given this reality, how come nothing was done to address this glaring liability?  The aforementioned “Scenario C” only partially provides the answer.  A more thorough explanation would be the overall organizational culture, something one can only lay at the feet of the head coach himself.  As I have explained to many of my students when teaching business courses at National College in
Louisville, Ky., the head coach of a football program is in every way the CEO of that program.  The main job of the CEO of any organization is not only to set the company’s strategy (to both devise and implement), but to set the organization’s tone – indeed, it’s very culture.  As we the public have now discovered in the most unwitting way possible – within reason – the culture Paterno established was one of enabling, as in, looking the other way.

Seeing things another way, can one see other “old school” coaches establishing an enabling culture like at Penn State?  Could one envision, say, Barry Switzer, Howard Schnellenberger, Bear Bryant, or even Lou Holtz countenancing such alleged evils on their watch?

There are many lessons to be learned from this stranger-than-fiction, sordid tale.  I could have thought of a few possible ways that would lead to JoePa’s long-overdue departure, but if somebody earlier this year told me that a scandal of this magnitude would A) actually occur, and B) lead to Paterno’s immediate ouster, I would have said they were crazy.  But aside from that, the lessons:

Lesson 1:  It never ends well for these geriatric head coaches that have been a legendary, overpowering fixture at a program for multiple decades when they do not know when it is time to exit the stage.  Just ask Florida State’s dad-gum coach Bobby Bowden.  To the credit of Bear Bryant, arguably the greatest coach of all time in any sport, not just football, he finally figured out when it was time to say “when.”  It ended well for him (he even went out winning a bowl game).  Not so much Sweet Ol’ Bobby, nor for Joe[Grand]Pa.

Lesson 2:  An enabling culture will eventually come back to haunt you, whether you are a living legend, or a young, seemingly innocent up-and-comer (e.g., Mike McQueary).  If you are the latter, it can ruin your career before it fully develops.  If you are the former, it can permanently tarnish if not outright ruin the legacy you have labored decades to build.

Lesson 3:  Speaking of not ending well, that is particularly the case for these dictatorial, inflexible, my-way-or-the-highway head coaches, as Joe Paterno is now learning the hard way (at age 84).  He could have learned this lesson from Frank Kush at Arizona State.  Heck, he could have asked Woody.

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