January 17, 2015
In a past life, NCAA President Mark Emmert would have made for one hell of an emperor.
Maybe "despot" is a better word.
On Friday, Emmert and the NCAA reached a settlement with Penn State to restore the 112 wins stripped from the university in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. They were careful not to imply that the sanctions were wrong in the first place, insisting that this new deal was more about how and where the $60 million in fines would be spent.
We’re not that stupid, Mr. Emmert.
In July of 2012 -- 11 days after the release of former FBI director Louis Freeh’s report that found Penn State President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz, Athletic Director Time Curley, and, most famously, late head coach Joe Paterno knowingly concealed information about complaints alleging that long-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had used his power and influence to take advantage of young boys -- Emmert showed the world just how powerful he can be.
Emmert saw an opportunity to get on the right side of history by raining fire and brimstone-like vengeance upon everyone with ties to Penn State and Sandusky...
He and Rodney Erickson, who took over after Spanier’s ouster, reached an agreement that Penn State would receive a four-year* bowl ban and temporary reduction in scholarships, be forced to pay a $60 million fine, and -- for reasons that never quite made sense -- had to vacate 112 wins, effectively removing Paterno his place as the winningest coach in the history NCAA D-1 football.
*On September 8, 2014 the NCAA announced that Penn State could immediately compete in postseason play, cutting the bowl ban to 2 years, and that all lost scholarships would be returned for 2015.
It was a crushing blow; one that many felt the NCAA lacked the legal power to deliver. And they were right. From the beginning, this case was a legal issue, and one that Emmert should have kept a distance from.
Instead, he acted swiftly and harshly, coercing Erickson to sign the consent decree while threatening to hit Penn State with the dreaded “death penalty,” which internal emails later revealed was nothing more than a bluff.
But why? What NCAA rules did the football program violate? None, as far as I can tell.
There are only two logical reasons for Emmert’s sudden zeal to punish the Nittany Lions program in this way.
The first is simply because he could.
Sandusky had been convicted a month before Emmert handed out the sanctions on Penn State. The Freeh Report now gave him the ammunition he needed. Who was going to stop him?
The other reason -- which is more problematic -- is to improve his own image.
Unlike previous scandals, where public opinion was more diverse, there’s no debating the despicable nature of what Jerry Sandusky did at State College. He was convicted and will likely be in prison for the rest of his life. But by coming down hard on the university, Emmert thought he would look like the hero. While his recent investigations involved things like academic fraud and improper benefits to players, this was something bigger. This was national headlines. Not just on SportsCenter, either. This scandal was making headlines on morning, afternoon and evening news programs. It was being talked about at dinner tables and around water coolers across the country.
Emmert saw an opportunity to get on the right side of history by raining fire and brimstone-like vengeance upon everyone with ties to Penn State and Sandusky -- right down to those whose only crime was signing a letter of intent to play football at Penn State during this period.
On a parallel timeline, 1,500 miles away, the NCAA was also investigating the University of Miami because a convicted felon with strong ties to the football program -- sound familiar? -- had thrown parties for potential recruits. Unlike the investigation into Penn State, this type of scandal was more commonplace for the NCAA enforcement staff. And it took three years to complete, resulting in little more than a black eye for Miami. In fact, the NCAA came out looking worse than the university when Emmert was forced to admit that their main source of evidence was obtained illegally, prompting a internal investigation into their own practices.
The crimes are not comparable, which is why it's so jarring that NCAA handed down some of its harshest sanctions ever just 11 days after the release of the Freeh Report, before Ed Ray, former chairman of the NCAA’s executive committee even had a chance to read it.
Yet during the news conference announcing the original sanction, Ray spoke as though he had. The truth is, he was too busy vacationing in Hawaii, and “may have looked at the executing summary.”
Funny how the story changes when he's under oath.
So why the sudden change of heart by the NCAA?
It needed to settle before this was put in front of a judge -- someone, unlike Emmert, Ray and the rest of the NCAA executive committee, that is actually qualified to rule on matters like this -- thanks to a lawsuit filed by the Paterno family.
The landscape of amateur athletics is rapidly changing, as is the effectiveness of its leaders. Lawsuits against the NCAA are becoming more and more common as Emperor Emmert continues to punish with no signs of stopping. The only concessions they've given have come after a court ruled against them, like in the Ed O'Bannon case, or in situations like this, where the NCAA is so obviously wrong that a settlement with Penn State is needed to avoid further embarrassment in court.
And amidst all this change, like the growing belief that college athletes should receive some kind of compensation, the NCAA -- and more specifically its enforcement staff -- has felt the pressure to stay relevant; to show results. Prove their worth.
By handing out harsh punishments, they hope to trick the public into believing they serve an actual purpose. And Emmert, who as president presides over the enforcement of NCAA rules, can reap all the benefits, including his $1.7 million salary.
The decision to reach a settlement with Penn State is just another in a long line of massively public missteps by Emperor Emmert and his court. And with each false step, the angry mob outside his door continues to grow.
Eventually, there will be nowhere for him to hide. And Emperor Emmert, once praised for protecting the integrity of amateurism, will be exposed for what he really is: a power-hungry despot.
It doesn't take a genius to realize that the emperor has no clothes.