All posts for the month July, 2012

If you read any of my previous posts, you might guess that I’m not a huge fan of the NCAA penalties placed on Penn State.  As someone that teaches vibrations regularly it’s interesting to watch the pendulum swing back and forth, never seeming to reach an equilibrium.  In this case, the NCAA wanted to flex its muscle to show the world that it has more power than it actually does.  People (not me) had been saying that penalties it has handed out in the past are too weak, so it needed to stand up and grab some headlines by overreaching its bounds.  What happened at Penn State had nothing to do with exploiting the student-athletes the NCAA is there to protect.  It has now deemed itself a watchdog for anything remotely related to collegiate athletics.

Regarding the specific penalties, the only one I have a real problem with is the fine.  Sixty million dollars is a lot of money.  While I’m glad it will be put to good use, I wonder if it will come only from the athletic department.  I sure hope so because it’s now going to be even harder to argue against state budget cuts that are always proposed.  Tuition was already going to increase because of this indirect loss of state funds.

Another thing I keep reading about is the need to change the culture and the organizational structure that led to this situation.  The thing is the organizational structure is not what caused the problem.  PSU has much the same organization structure as any other university.  It’s not like back in the day at Auburn where the football coach (Dye) was also the athletic director.  It’s also not like a former coach or player (here here NU, UM, et al.) is the athletic director.  People seem to have the impression that PSU’s organizational structure somehow gave Paterno, et al. too much power.  While I agree entirely Paterno had too much power, it was not the organizational structure that gave it to him.

That brings me to the culture.  The football culture here is as distorted and twists as it is at most major universities.  It does not seem any worse than it was a UM; although it is certainly worse than it was at Cal (Berkeley).  I would think it’s actually not as bad as many other schools (Texas, TAMU, UF, FSU, Auburn, Alabama, LSU, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Oklahoma, USC, Miami, et al.).  These schools seem to have cultural issues at least as serious as PSU.  Ultimately, it seems to me to be more a cultural issue of our society.

So why did this tragedy happen at PSU and not someplace else?  Mostly it was just bad luck and could have happened at any number of schools.  We brought someone (Sandusky) on campus (as a student-athlete) that happened to be a very clever sociopath.  Unfortunately he was also a good player and coach, and smart enough to not get caught during his early years.  (Note, I’m assuming he did not become a pedophile in his later years and had been abusing children for much longer than we know.)  The other piece in the puzzle was that we hired a coach that would turn into an arrogant old man that had nothing else to do besides coach football and, thus, wouldn’t retire.  I also believe Paterno truly felt that he was the only person good enough to coach the PSU football team.

The problem was he was just hear for so long (current students may have grown up with their parents and grandparents idolizing him) that he slowly turned into a dictator.  Unfortunately there was never really any good reason to get rid of him (until the end).  Sure he had some losing seasons but then you’re basically firing someone for not winning games.  PSU alumni and administrators thought he had sacrificed too much for the university to fire him for not winning.  It’s really hard to fire a legend unless they do something bad.  Unfortunately, very few people knew about the bad things he did until the end.  He did do a lot for the university by living a very modest life, earning a modest (relative to other coaches) salary, and donating much of his endorsement income back to the university.  However, I will stick by my early Facebook comments that in the end he will have cost the university more than he gave it.  His “I’m a simple man trying to teach young athletes to be good people.” was probably true to start.  However, as the years wore on, I think that was more of a front to continue to garner alumni support.  I read someone suggesting we have term limits on football coaches.  That’ll never happen but you have to be mindful that at some (tipping) point a coach has too much power.

The thing that people outside PSU don’t seem to see is that the culture changed the minute Paterno was fired and this new culture was cemented when he died.  The NCAA punishments are not going to change the culture.  In fact, I worry that they’ll make it worse.  There will be even more of an ‘us against them’ attitude that will insulate the university from the world. Maybe forcing the football team to be terrible will help change the culture of the blindly devoted PSU alumni that are the ones that really enabled this mess.  Unfortunately, its hard to punish such a large group of people, most of whom had nothing explicitly to contribute to the situation.  What I would like to see is the university try to pay this fine by using a true supply and demand system for ticket prices.  The alumni are still likely going to fill the stadium–for most of them it’s a tradition that won’t end because the team stinks–so let the ticket prices climb until profit is maximized.  Then the people that truly enabled this situation will be penalized.

As I have read more and more speculation about what punishment the NCAA will hand down to PSU, I have started to think what might be fair and what might fit with all of what has been leaked.

One suggestion I have always liked is for the athletic department to essentially be run as a non-profit and donate all proceeds to a charity (likely for abused children).  The problem with that idea is that a non-profit (and least a fake one like this would be) can always make sure to spend all the revenue so there appears to be no profit.  I.e. the athletic department could just make sure it spends everything it earns so there’s nothing left for charity.

Another thing that I’ve read about is the NCAA taking over the athletic department.  At first this seemed quite strange but it fits with the idea of running things as a non-profit.  With the NCAA overseeing things, the athletic department could not spend frivolously to burn all the revenue.  If this were the reason for the NCAA taking over (or having oversight) then I think it’s not a bad idea.

The last piece to the puzzle is the fine the NCAA appears to be planning to levy.  I’ve read that it’s somewhere between $30 and $60 million.  That seems pretty excessive to pay all at once.  If this were taken from the athletic department over a year or two it would devastate non-revenue sports, not the football program.  Like they do at almost all large universities, football and basketball pay the way for almost all other sports.  Thus, forcing the athletic department to run at a loss would be punishing a lot of ‘real’ student-athletes.

Finally, the last I heard the athletic department has an income of roughly $15 million most years.  (I’m not exactly sure what they do with that money but it’s separate from the academic budget.)  Thus, say the NCAA forces PSU to run the athletic department as a non-profit for four years.  If income stays as it is, that would make for a $60 million fine.  If income drops as one might expect, the number might be closer to $30 million.

By simply taking the income the athletic department might have made, the NCAA will avoid punishing other athletic programs.  Some athletic department projects might be put on hold (hopefully the new ice rink is already paid for), but cutting back on the lavishness of the facilities for the football team will probably be a good thing.

If the ‘credible sources’ are correct the NCAA will be announcing ‘severe and unprecedented’ penalties to Penn State athletics tomorrow.   While I have long thought the football culture around here needed to change and think that the past leadership should be criminally charged, when I hear about the NCAA wanting to impose sanctions to punish the university it always seems wrong.  I have thought a lot about why it ‘feels’ wrong and have gone back and forth between thinking my gut feeling was correct.  I like to trust my instincts but I had a hard time developing a rational argument for why I feel this way.

At first I was thinking the NCAA was overstepping its bounds because this is more of a failure of leadership than a failure to abide by NCAA policy.  I will be very interested in what infractions are cited in support of the penalties and if Penn State has the guts to appeal.  The problem to me is that I don’t really like this argument.  While the problem was indeed more a problem of leadership it was enabled by the athletic department and a lack of control from our leadership.  Thus, in that regard I feel the NCAA should be involved.

However, even after dismissing this argument, I still just felt like the NCAA should butt out of this.  Today I think I finally figured out why I feel this way.  Hopefully I can articulate my feelings in this post.

First, I have never been a fan of the NCAA or how college athletics seems to overshadow academics at some of the nation’s best universities.  The entire system needs to be blown up.  And in some regards I feel shutting down PSU football for a year might actually be a good thing in the long term.   However, the real problem I have with the NCAA getting involved is the stated mission of the NCAA.  According to their web site:

Founded more than one hundred years ago as a way to protect student-athletes, the NCAA continues to implement that principle with increased emphasis on both athletics and academic excellence.

Besides wondering if the NCAA really has the interest of student-athletes in mind, they are supposed to be protecting them from abuse by universities.  Again, while they seem to be more about enabling universities to abuse student-athletes than anything else, there were no abuses of NCAA athletes in this situation.  The NCAA is not here to protect coaches or children, or to punish coaches or universities that do not protect children.  The judicial system does that.  Hopefully, the judicial system will continue to punish the people that committed these crimes.

In my mind, the real problem with the NCAA getting involved is that in many ways they are acting like the PSU leadership, overstepping their bounds to preserve public perception.  They seem to be all too willing to continue to enhance the public perception that they are an organization that oversees entire universities not just the athletic programs at universities.