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Sports/Gaming Last Updated: Jan 31st, 2012 - 17:54:54

PSU Case Unmasks The NCAA
By Esther Iverem— Editor and Film Critic
Dec 16, 2011, 12:31

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There is nothing worse, nothing more sickening, than at least ten boys being sexually molested, as outlined in charges against former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky.

But almost as infuriating to me, as a college sports fan and the mother of a college athlete, is the near silence from the NCAA—the National Collegiate Athletic Association—the organization that oversees sports at more than 1000 universities and colleges.

Or, rather, what this scandal illustrates is that the NCAA really doesn’t oversee much of anything when it comes to the well-being of young athletes on campus.

In his brief public statement on the matter on Nov. 10, NCAA president Mark Emmert said: “the NCAA is actively monitoring developments and assessing appropriate steps moving forward. The NCAA will defer in the immediate term to law enforcement officials since this situation involved alleged crimes. As the facts are established through the justice system, we will determine whether Association bylaws have been violated and act accordingly. To be clear, civil and criminal law will always take precedence over Association rules.”

This meek posture from the NCAA is odd when, in more petty matters, the NCAA thunders with all the weight of judge and jury in cases we know all too well—five Ohio State players suspended—and veteran coach Jim Tressel resigned—because the players traded their jerseys or other memorabilia to get tattoos or cash. Or, similarly, a year before, AJ Green, a wide receiver at Georgia, suspended four games for selling a jersey so he could go on spring break, or the University of Southern California serving out a multi-year suspension—with their 2004 championship stripped and running back Reggie Bush asked to return his 2005 Heisman Trophy—because Bush’s parents received favors and money that allowed them to travel to see their son play.

Rather than suggest an investigation or even concern about the horrible allegations at Penn State, the NCAA is more concerned with enforcement of these picayune rules barring athletes—primarily talented Black males from low income circumstances— from benefiting in any small way from the billions that they earn for universities, coaches and the NCAA annually. When Emmett says that the NCAA will wait to “determine whether Association bylaws have been violated” at Penn State, it would be laughable if it were not so pathetic and dangerous. Regardless of the outcome of the Sandusky case, shouldn’t NCAA bylaws forbid those under investigation for child molestation from having any contact with students or college athletic facilities? Even though Sandusky was officially retired as a Penn State coach, he still maintained an office within the football department, was listed as a professor emeritus of physical education and often visited the campus.

Since the NCAA is such a well-oiled machine when it comes to its so-called investigations, why doesn’t it have an alert system for potential cases like this? Sara Ganim, a reporter at The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., first reported that Sandusky was the subject of a grand jury investigation for child sexual abuse in March of this year but this revelation didn’t prompt any NCAA investigation. In May 2010, Sandusky was denied a volunteer coaching position Juniata College in central Pennsylvania after a background check revealed that a high school was investigating him on the same sex abuse allegations that were later detailed by the grand jury. So a small college can do this type of due diligence, a simple background check, but the NCAA cannot? Or, perhaps it will not because the organization has its eye elsewhere—on the money.

In his recent in-depth treatise on the NCAA in the Atlantic magazine, author Taylor Branch notes that despite the failing economy, a single college athletic league, the football-crazed Southeastern Conference, known as the SEC, became the first to break the billion-dollar barrier in 2010. The Big Ten followed closely at $905 million. (According to the Business of College Sports website, Penn State football netted the school $50 million in the 2009 season and a 2008 study found that each Penn State home game pumps $59 million into the local economy.)

Branch also talks about the cartel that is college sports giving money and power to coaches and none to the athletes earning the bucks. By the way, only one percent of the biggest college stars—primarily Black athletes, earn 99 percent of these revenues and, after a lawsuit that allowed football conferences to wrest their revenues away from the NCAA, the organization’s primary revenue comes from the annual March Madness Basketball Tournament, which brings in close to one billion dollars.

He writes: “In theory, the NCAA’s passion to protect the noble amateurism of college athletes should prompt it to focus on head coaches in the high-revenue sports—basketball and football—since holding the top official accountable should most efficiently discourage corruption. The problem is that the coaches’ growing power has rendered them, unlike their players, ever more immune to oversight. According to research by Charles Clotfelter, an economist at Duke, the average compensation for head football coaches at public universities, now more than $2 million, has grown 750 percent (adjusted for inflation) since the Regents decision in 1984; that’s more than 20 times the cumulative 32 percent raise for college professors. For top basketball coaches, annual contracts now exceed $4 million, augmented by assorted bonuses, endorsements, country-club memberships, the occasional private plane, and in some cases a negotiated percentage of ticket receipts. (Oregon’s ticket concessions netted former football coach Mike Bellotti an additional $631,000 in 2005.)

He continues: “The NCAA rarely tangles with such people, who are apt to fight back and win. When Rick Neuheisel, the head football coach of the Washington Huskies, was punished for petty gambling (in a March Madness pool, as it happened), he sued the NCAA and the university for wrongful termination, collected $4.5 million, and later moved on to UCLA. When the NCAA tried to cap assistant coaches’ entering salary at a mere $16,000, nearly 2,000 of them brought an antitrust suit, Law v. NCAA, and in 1999 settled for $54.5 million. Since then, salaries for assistant coaches have commonly exceeded $200,000, with the top assistants in the SEC averaging $700,000. In 2009, Monte Kiffin, then at the University of Tennessee, became the first assistant coach to reach $1 million, plus benefits.”

And that imbalance of power—and imbalance of focus on wrongdoing—brings me back to the Penn State scandal and the NCAA’s reluctance “to tangle” with coaches and big sport-revenue schools like Penn State. Instead of worrying about players selling a jersey, maybe the NCAA needs to really look out for the well-being of players and of vulnerable young athletes who aspire to, one day, go to college.

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