Called the “darkest day in Penn State history,” on July 23, 2012, the the NCAA imposed unprecedented penalties on the Penn State football program. Dr. Mark Emmert, President of the NCAA, loudly and clearly told Penn State and all other member institutions across the country:  sports cannot erode the real morals and values for which the NCAA stands.  To emphasize the point, the sanctions against the university include:

  1. a $60 million fine, equivalent to one year’s gross revenue from Penn State football, to start an endowment for victims of child abuse;
  2. a four-year postseason ban;
  3. the reduction in the amount of initial scholarships from 25 to 15 for four years;
  4. the vacating of all wins from the 1998 season through the 2011 season;
  5. a five-year probation; and
  6.  permitting all current and incoming student-athletes are permitted to transfer to another NCAA  institution without losing eligibility or having to sit out the year before they can play.

Furthermore, the NCAA reserved the right to conduct a formal investigation and to impose individual penalties after the criminal proceedings are completed, mandated that Penn State adopt the proposals included in Chapter 10 of the Freeh Report, required Penn State to enter into an athletic integrity agreement establishing both a chief compliance officer and additional compliance counsel, and hired an independent athletic integrity monitor to periodically audit the university for the next five years.  In addition, the Big Ten Conference, of which Penn State is a part, announced that Penn State would forfeit its share of bowl revenue for four years, worth approximately $13 million a year.  This money also will be put towards a charity for abused children.

The sanctions were not unique only because of their scope and severity but also because of the manner in which they were imposed.  Typically, the NCAA’s investigatory process involves a lengthy independent investigation conducted by the NCAA Enforcement Staff to determine whether specific bylaws were broken. This process can take months, and even years.  For example, the NCAA investigated the University of Southern California’s football team for four years before imposing sanctions.  Further, once sanctions are imposed, the member institution typically has the opportunity to appeal the sanctions to the Infractions Appeals Committee.

Here, not only did the NCAA not conduct an investigation, the sanctions were imposed and accepted in record time.  First, rather than undergoing the full investigatory process, Dr. Emmert was given the power to impose the sanctions by the NCAA Executive Committee and the Division I Board of Directors.  Thus, Dr. Emmert had sole discretion to impose the sanctions on Penn State, a power that is reserved for only the most egregious bylaw violations. Second, the sanctions were imposed just 11 days after the Freeh Report was made public.  Finally, Penn State signed a consent decree, agreeing to the sanctions and agreeing not to appeal. 

The sanctions also are unique because of their severity and scope.  While the NCAA has consistently sanctioned member institutions, it is worth comparing the sanctions in the Penn State case to those imposed on the Southern Methodist University (“SMU”) football program in 1987. The SMU football program was given the death penalty after the NCAA discovered that current student-athletes were being paid out of a “slush fund” provided by a booster.  The NCAA cancelled the 1987 football season, allowing student-athletes to transfer without losing eligibility; cancelled all home games for the 1988 season, which led to SMU’s cancelling the away games as well; placed the school on probation until 1990; implemented a three-year postseason ban and television ban; reduced the amount of scholarships by 55 over four years; reduced the number of full-time assistant coaches from nine to five; and prohibited off-campus recruiting until August 1988 with no paid visits for recruits to campus until the start of the 1988–89 school year. 

Member institutions need to focus on emphasizing the morals and values for which the NCAA expects its member institutions to stand and stopping the hero worship that led to the egregious incidents at Penn State. Dr. Emmert’s message is clear:  the presidents are in charge, and they are expected to prevent the erosion of the academic values in favor of winning at all costs.  Of course, the circumstances leading to the penalties imposed on Penn State were extreme and likely will not be repeated.  Nonetheless, institutions of higher education should focus on maintaining a system of checks and balances in not just football but all sports.  Otherwise, they too might find themselves under unwanted scrutiny.