Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Purpose

This post has nothing to do with basketball. You've been warned.

True story: I wrote this post yesterday, and just as I finished, I deleted it. It's certainly not necessary or expected (or welcomed, for some I'm sure) for me to comment on the Penn State scandal or the NCAA punishment, and so the threshold for actually sending words out into the ether was just whether or not I had anything interesting to say. Yesterday, I didn't think that I did.

Then I read one opinion. Then another. Both from authors whom initially thought the NCAA had no business in this matter, who later changed their minds. And both articles convince me that a very important point has been missed. Specifically, I cannot figure out what the purpose is behind the NCAA's punishment.

Put aside whether or not the NCAA had "jurisdiction." That's always been a complaint raised by those who use the word without understanding its meaning. Yes, the NCAA has jurisdiction, inasmuch as there's no test that exists for it. Jurisdiction is generally something that we require of our public institutions--such as a police force or a court of law. It's not something we apply to private actors, and certainly not in the context of a voluntary organization. This isn't to say that the NCAA doesn't have boundaries, but those boundaries are set by the laws of the United States and/or Indiana and/or other states in which the NCAA conducts business.

But the fact that the NCAA has jurisdiction to act does not mean that it should. I would go even further, and argue that even armed with jurisdiction and presented with heinous crimes, the NCAA does not need to punish. Punishment makes sense when there's a point. Here, I don't see what the point is.

It goes without saying that what happened at Penn State was deplorable, that men in power abused that power and put the welfare of those who could not protect themselves behind the interests of a football program. That's a terrible thing. Those men deserve to be punished, and those victims deserve to be compensated.

But the NCAA's punishments don't do either of those things. From a punitive standpoint, the sanctions don't touch the men responsible. Those guys are no longer (or soon to be no longer) associated with the Penn State program. To the extent they are alive, they will (and in one case, already have) receive punishments. At least one individual is headed to jail. More will face trial. None of this is the NCAA's doing, mind you. The only arguable way that the sanctions punish any of these men is by scrubbing a record book.

The NCAA sanctions also don't have any deterring effect. When an individual is faced with the choice of whether or not to commit or cover up a heinous crime such as this, I submit that the last thing on his mind is the fate of a football team. The threat of a jail term is certainly a much bigger stick. Were I faced with a two week jail sentence, I'd happily trade my favorite team never winning another game for the opportunity to avoid the slammer. So would any other sane (or just about every insane) person.

Finally, the NCAA's penalties do nothing to compensate victims. To Penn State's credit, it's working with the victims to properly compensate them. Again though, this is happening without the NCAA. Sure, the $60 million fine is to go to organizations that fight child abuse, but it's not a direct payment to victims. And while that's a worthy cause for $60 million, it's not like that money was previously headed to an unworthy cause. Penn State University is, after all, a non-profit educational organization. The NCAA's term that the money cannot be funded through the reduction of scholarships in other sports merely means that the squeeze will come from somewhere else--whether that's faculty salaries, financial aid, or facilities upgrades, it's important to recognize that Penn State is primarily an educational institution (and a good one). Levying a fine on a non-profit institution (that's already set to pay out massive amounts in settlements to the actual victims) isn't something anyone ought to feel good about, even if it were the right thing to do.

The prevailing argument--and the one used by the NCAA--is that the sanctions are meant to reinforce the idea that football should never be elevated to a place above the welfare of the students and community of the university. That's a noble goal, but it's unconnected to the penalties in the second place, and it's disingenuous in the first place. It's unconnected because all of those rabid supporters of Penn State--who elevated a coach to a place above questioning--would have (and in most cases, actually have) turned on him in an instant if they knew he looked the other way when presented with Sandusky's crimes. This wasn't a community-wide conspiracy to endanger children so long as it meant the team played on New Year's Day--it was a handful of terrible men that allowed for the triumph of evil. The good people of State College didn't need an attitude adjustment or a moral compass re-calibration--they needed the facts.

Moreover, the greater goal of the demotion of sports in the collegiate sphere is. as Tim Pawlenty would say, hogwash. I don't think the NCAA is the bogeyman. I've defended the NCAA before, and I'll do it again. But it's a fiction to claim that the NCAA hopes that we can all just stop caring about college sports so much. If one wanted to lower college sports' spot in the pecking order, it's not a difficult task. The NCAA could ban televising all games. It could require that admissions be double-blind, such that there truly is no advantage for athletes in admissions. I'm sure others could think of a dozen different ways to remove money from college sports. And I accept that some solutions might be better than others. Further, I take no position on whether that a drastic de-emphasis of collegiate sports is a worthy cause. My only point here is that to the extent that Penn State football is a Very Big Deal, the NCAA was a complicit partner.

So while I certainly think that the wrongdoers deserve to be punished, and that the victims should be compensated, I'm not so sure that there's much purpose to the NCAA's sanctions. Making sure that a football team stinks for years (decades?) seems like an odd way to help remedy the situation at State College.