Emmert’s act means sports not exempt
Few acts signal massive socio-political change better than the toppling of a statue.
Generally reserved for the deposition of a tyrannical dictator, the removal of Joe Paterno’s statue at Penn State nonetheless reflects a monumental shift in how college athletics are conducted, managed – and, in a way, policed.
While the statue removal on Sunday was the symbol, the actual demolition of the Penn State football program took place Monday morning, and the hands on the detonator belonged to NCAA president Mark Emmert, who was born in Tacoma, raised in Fife, and graduated from the University of Washington before later serving as UW president.
Emmert’s punitive cudgel blow in response to the child sex abuse scandal included a $60 million fine, severe scholarship reductions, a four-year bowl ban, NCAA probation and the erasure of every PSU football win from 1998 through 2011.
Now in his second year as NCAA chief, Emmert stepped well beyond the range customary to his position, which historically extended to penalizing programs that cheated in recruiting, violated regulations against improper benefits and other misdeeds that would result in unfair competitive advantages.
Emmert’s acts Monday will stir controversy over whether the NCAA should be in the business of punishing criminal behavior or, in a broader sense, casting moral judgments. It will be easy for critics to say that it opens the door for a different abuse of power … by the NCAA itself.
But Emmert presented a compelling case for the unprecedented punishment. Basically, the NCAA has never had to act this way because there’s never been a situation like this.
Assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of child sex abuse. And a university investigation revealed that Penn State officials, including Paterno, were involved in a cover-up that shielded the pedophile for more than a decade.
Their silence amounted to the shameful act of putting the reputation – and profitability – of an athletic program above the welfare of children.
No price the NCAA can levy will repair the grievous damage inflicted by Jerry Sandusky on his victims, Emmert said. “However, we can make clear that the culture, actions and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in collegiate athletics.”
Football, he said, can “never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.”
In building his case for the heavy punishment, Emmert expanded beyond the Penn State situation to address concerns over the status of college athletics in general.
“One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is (that) the sports, themselves, can become too big to fail, and too big to even challenge,” he said. “The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by hero worship and winning at all costs.”
The NCAA leader, in this case, is worried about sports becoming too big, while television contracts negotiated by the NCAA reach into the billions of dollars?
Emmert was UW president when Steve Sarkisian was hired as football coach in late 2008 and immediately made the highest-paid state of Washington employee. Sarkisian had never been a head coach at the time of his hiring, but is now making more than $2 million a year. The second-highest paid state employee is Washington State football coach Mike Leach, also at more than $2 million a year.
The argument to support these salaries is always that schools must pay the market rate if they want to be competitive. But that seems to be evidence that sports are already separate and distinct from academic values, and, with each paycheck issued, prove that winning is the driving force.
Emmert has ventured into new territory, and that makes him vulnerable to second-guessing. Granted, the NCAA seems better suited for constructing tournament brackets and policing recruiting violations than making judgments on issues of human decency, or what constitutes moral and responsible behavior.
Some might ask if it’s Emmert’s job to address this. But we also may speculate that there were points along the way where Penn State employees did not stand up and act against Sandusky on the assumption that it was someone else’s job to do so.
Emmert saw that this situation was unprecedented in its scope and repugnant nature, and it required proportional response. The most fitting was the $60 million fine that will be channeled toward treatment and support of child sex abuse victims.
The headlines of Emmert’s penalties will bring heightened awareness to the problem of child abuse, and of the shared culpability of those who do anything less than act quickly and emphatically in its presence.
Dave Boling; 253-597-8440 Dave.email@example.com @DaveBoling