Why the NCAA, and why punish the innocents?
This week, wide receiver Shawney Kersey became the twelfth player to leave the Nittany Lions after the NCAA levied the Penn State sanctions, and backup kicker Matt Marcinson shortly followed suit, bringing the total number of players lost to thirteen. Four of the thirteen players to leave the Nittany Lions, including Kersey and Marcinson, did not transfer schools, but remain students at Penn State.
This is the unfortunate aftermath of the Penn State sanctions for the criminal conduct of Jerry Sandusky, former Penn State defensive coordinator under Joe Paterno. In June, Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of molestation. He is currently in jail awaiting sentencing. Louis Freeh, a former FBI director, conducted an independent investigation, commissioned by the Penn State board, which alleged that head football coach Joe Paterno and other school officials were aware of allegations of Sandusky’s sexual abuse and thus were complicit in their failure to disclose. In response to this criminal conduct, the NCAA sanctioned Penn State with one of the harshest punishments yet given to an athletics program. Penn State faces a four-year bowl ban, a $60 million fine, loss of scholarships, and other sanctions. These sanctions were levied shortly after the release of the Freeh report; no further investigative proceedings were first conducted by the NCAA.
Not only are these sanctions atypical for their harshness, but the basis for their imposition is also outside of the NCAA’s typical realm of regulation. The NCAA’s jurisdiction has generally been over conduct that affects the integrity of the game, including recruiting violations, cheating, and misconduct on the field. Criminal conduct unrelated to the game is not normally or intuitively a matter within this limited jurisdiction.
Assuming that the criminal conduct in this case, although dissimilar to conduct typically regulated by the NCAA, does nonetheless fall within the category of properly regulated conduct, the question becomes: where is the line to be drawn? If a coach dates a young student, or robs a liquor store, or gets arrested for a DUI, does this warrant the NCAA punishing the athletic program? What kind of precedent is being set by these Penn State sanctions?
Even if the NCAA was correct in this case and the criminal conduct here was properly within their authority to sanction, another question remains. Why didn’t the NCAA impose the sanctions on a deferred basis? The immediate imposition of sanctions has the biggest impact on the current players, who were entirely uninvolved in the conduct which was the basis for the sanctions. If the NCAA had waited to enforce the sanctions until the current players were no longer on the team, the penalties against Penn State would have remained the same without affecting the innocent current players. The next batch of players would have been aware of the consequences before committing to Penn State. Although the current players were permitted to transfer without sitting out for a year, this is not a feasible option for all players on the team. Regardless of whether the Penn State sanctions were an appropriate exercise of the NCAA’s authority, the timing of their imposition places undeserved and unfair consequences on the current players.