September 5, 2012 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Commentary: North Carolina, Penn State, and Why It Matters

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Yesterday's ruling by the NCAA to let North Carolina's athletic department completely off the hook, once again brings the Penn State issue to the forefront.

How so? Because it exemplifies what people like me feared when the Penn State ruling was announced — that, in the big picture, it was hollow grandstanding; that the NCAA reacted as harshly as it did, not because of some grand ideal of cleaning up the campus sports culture, but as a reaction to public emotions.

This is not about Penn State. It's hard to feel sympathy towards that institution. The issue is bigger — it's about what this all means for the NCAA as a whole, and how that relates to all sports.

At North Carolina, players were receiving improper benefits, and players were able to get away with taking bogus classes in order to keep their academic standing intact. The evidence was clear that this was a rampant, blatant issue. The NCAA — the same NCAA that said it was OK for Cam Newton to play in the Sugar Bowl because it was his father that took improper benefits, not him — washed its hands of the situation.

Is faking classes the same as failing to turn in a child molester? Obviously not. But the campus culture that NCAA president Mark Emmert referenced while announcing the Penn State sanctions could, at any time, manifest itself in any number of ways. If you truly want to prevent horrible things from happening, it needs to be addressed at the root.

I constantly defend the NCAA as an institution. So there was frustration in Emmert deeming himself the authority to make his sweeping ruling against Penn State. People often bemoan that "the NCAA" wields too much power willy nilly, when in reality, I try to remind people, committees made up of school representatives are the ones that make decisions. But now, the NCAA president himself actually did usurp all of the authority, and really is wielding power. This is the first time the NCAA threw out its normal due process and punished a program purely on moral grounds. There may be some vague wording in the NCAA by-laws about morality, but, c'mon.

And now people applaud?

The NCAA's penalties against Penn State were unprecedented. Emmert said that the Penn State situation was so horrible, that "unprecedented" was warranted. He said that they needed to send a message that athletics can't rule the campus.

But the NCAA didn't need to come down on Penn State, outside of its jurisdiction, in order to get the intended effect. No one likes what happened at Penn State. But everyone in the administration got fired, Paterno was disgraced, the former athletic director is facing criminal charges, and the school is facing numerous civil suits that will cost them millions. The NCAA is not the legal system. The NCAA must think of itself in terms of how it affects college sports — that's its reason for existing.

All of it would've been fine if the NCAA really meant the ideals it espoused in sanctioning Penn State. Cleaning up the "campus culture" is a noble goal. But Penn State is obviously not the only school where the athletics-first culture of big-time sports corrupts the campus. So, when the opportunity presented itself for Emmert to back it up, he dropped the ball. And if the NCAA doesn't follow through with these new-found ideals, it renders the whole thing as hypocritical grandstanding.

That's why you need to be careful about applauding what the NCAA did to Penn State. The thirst for justice at Penn State does not mean you should root for every possible entity to throw down a hammer arbitrarily.

More importantly, where does it go from here? What are the ground rules? What is the overriding philosophy? Do you care about the "culture of corruption" among all collegiate athletics or not? Apparently the NCAA does sometimes, but not really.

* * *

The relevance of the NCAA as a whole has been questioned often in the last couple of years. The reason I defend its existence, is because people often forget that there are tens of thousands of student-athletes, at thousands of schools, playing dozens of sports, in a variety of levels. It's not just Division I football and basketball. Painting the entire student-athlete experience with the football/basketball brush, is not fair.

I love sports for the positives it brings, despite its issues. I don't believe it's practical, nor right, that athletes get paid. I believe the experience is worthwhile on its own merits. I'm a believer in the positives athletics brings to a campus. I see athletes, overall, with better grades than the general student population.

Perhaps because I am immersed in a lesser-revenue sport like ice hockey — and because I went to a D-III school with strong athletics and academics — it's easier for me to accept. It's also easier for me to see it.

That's what makes this so disappointing.

Critics have pointed out that the term "student-athlete" was invented by the NCAA as a way to get around having to provide workman's compensation to players. The history is interesting, but I don't care now. What I see now are a lot of decent, hard-working people inside the NCAA. People who try. I see the term student-athlete used by them, not as a legal trick, but as something real — albeit with a bit of marketing spin thrown in.

It would be insane to deny that there are problems with the system — but there are problems with any system. Help to fix the system, don't tear it down.

The answer is not in paying players. If you want to pay players because you think they're exploited, then create a minor league for basketball and football.

What that will lack, however, is the tradition associated with the university. The reason college sports are as popular as they are, is because the fans — the consumers who pay all that money into it — are passionate. They are locals or alumni who have a visceral connection to their school, much moreso in many cases than fans of pro teams have to their favorites. This is what keeps them coming back. And the rivalries — the ones that fuel the big games, which create the revenue — are likewise there because of this connection.

So it's nearly impossible to detach the money from the college sports concept.

By the same token, you can't detach the concept of amateurism either. The visceral connection is also there because these players are students, they are part of the fabric of the university. It's what makes interscholastic athletics what it is.

Are they being exploited to some degree? Sure. Can a better system be worked out? Sure. Is there a better use for all of this money that's going around? In a lot of cases, yes. Can these schools better adhere to their scholastic mission and not be as corrupted all the time by their athletic pursuits? Absolutely.

But these are things that we should try to fix, and be vigilant about enforcing — properly. Not blowing away the whole system just because of the bad eggs in a couple of sports, and because of the NCAA's often ineptitude in doling out justice.

If you stand on your principles, then all of this can be justified and you have a better foundation upon which to present the student-athlete philosophy. But if you act arbitrarily from one case to the next, it makes even its biggest supporters, like me, struggle to defend it. And that is why acting consistently and judiciously matters.

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