The Penn State scandal has taken center stage in intercollegiate sports controversies of late. Given what happened at the university, it is clear why Penn State officials should be wearing black hats. There was, and is, no excuse for the conduct that led to the set of institutional abuses that attempted to hide the sexual misconduct of the school's former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky.
Yet just because Penn State is bad does not mean that the NCAA is good, either in its behavior in this case or more generally. On the former question, Michael McCann asks the right question when he claims that the NCAA acted with undue haste in meting out punishment to Penn State. The gist of the complaint is that disciplinary hearings of the gravity of this one normally require that the organization – which has a quasi-legal status, to say the least – give the party targeted for sanctions the opportunity to defend itself. That right is important even if there is no question that the party charged is guilty of some offense. What that offense is, and which individuals or entities should be punished for it, remain live questions, and on these issues quickie judgments issued without a full hearing should be frowned upon.
In this case, the longish process that gives Penn State 90 days to respond was waived. It seems that everyone wanted to get something done on this issue as quickly as possible. But the concentration of all powers in the hands of a single individual, NCAA President Mark Emmert, has real dangers – and would even if Emmert were the wisest person on the face of the planet.
Many voices and some deliberation seem to be required in these cases. Indeed, I would not be inclined to allow Penn State to waive the protection of the standard rules for this simple reason: the waiver can always be coerced. What party will not waive if it knows that the price for asserting procedural rights is a far heavier set of sanctions down the road?
The institutional interests in fair process transcend the individual case, and require that all procedures be followed in this one, lest it be a precedent for the next case. The sentences in question can still be imposed after a hearing, including the monetary penalties and the suspension of various scholarships and other privileges.
The stampede to exact a fair measure of revenge from Penn State is understandable. It is less clear that the quickie sanctions should be encouraged given the dislocation that they place in the lives of many athletes and students who are innocent of all wrongdoing.
The Penn State scandal is not the only story that drew attention. Caltech, known more for astrophysics than for physical education, was also subject to NCAA sanctions for allowing students who had not enrolled in a full schedule of courses to participate in athletics.
The source of this academic breach of duty was not indifference to academics, but genuine concern with them. Students at Caltech attend multiple classes during an early period before choosing which ones they will ultimately take. But the NCAA, like all monolithic organizations, has a tin ear to local conditions and thus uses a set of sanctions that are wholly inappropriate for the supposed offense that it intends to correct. Caltech turned itself in, which is fine after a fashion. But the real question is why the NCAA should have this level of control.
It is not enough to say that there is abuse at the school level. It is also necessary to ask whether there is abuse at the NCAA level as well. On the latter point, the NCAA cannot get a clean verdict. The blunt truth is that the NCAA is the only game in town and has a power disproportionate to its wisdom. Put otherwise, the NCAA enjoys a monopoly position as a regulator and thus cannot be immune from the temptations that face all organizations with such power. Just to be summoned before the NCAA to explain why a college is not in compliance with this or that rule is a hugely expensive undertaking, which goes a long way to dull criticism of its behavior.
There are other ways in which that monopoly power manifests itself, some of which help explain the endemic corruption in football. Football is a huge engine with large payoffs that are used, in many instances, to attract large donations to the school – donations that in turn subsidize other programs. The football players who drive this local economy cannot sell their services at market wages to the schools because they are of course students, not professionals. But they can receive scholarships, dorm rooms, good food and pocket money in partial compensation for their labor. The sum of all these goodies, however, is likely to fall below the value a strong player delivers to the team. Thus the boosters try to increase the chances of getting players by adding in secret perks on the side. The cartel rules have to stop that behavior, which they can only do imperfectly given the costs of policing. There would be less underground black-market activity if the stipends (so-called) to these athletes were increased. But that one decision would neutralize much of the clout of the NCAA, which operates through sticks as much as carrots.
The bottom line is not all that pretty. The NCAA may perform some useful functions, but, if it does, their execution comes at a high price. The uneasiness about Penn State and Caltech may only prove to be the tip of a much larger (and depressing) iceberg that lies just below the waves.