When it comes to the NCAA, due process and other standards of a court of law don’t apply.
That’s according to one expert in NCAA regulations and enforcement. David Ridpath, associate professor of sports management at Ohio University, said Penn State doesn’t have to be a member of the NCAA if it doesn’t like the sanctions the organization imposed on the university for its role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. But, in this case, Penn State President Rodney Erickson already signed off on the penalties.
Ridpath said the 1988 case of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, basketball coach versus the NCAA gave the NCAA a huge amount of latitude. That case, involving a basketball coach who fought his suspension, made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the NCAA isn’t a state agency.
“That court case gave them license to say, ‘If you want to be in our club, you have to follow our club rules,’ ” Ridpath said.
Ridpath, who had his own run-in with the NCAA as an athletic administrator at Marshall University, said he doesn’t like the way the NCAA handled the Penn State situation, but he thinks those fighting it need to take their complaints to the university.
“Their beef is with Penn State,” he said. “Penn State didn’t need to accept those sanctions.”
Several entities — at least one trustee, the family of Joe Paterno and a group of former players — have filed notices of appeal with the NCAA for the sanctions it imposed on Penn State for its role in the Sandusky scandal.
Although on Friday, that trustee said in an email to the board that he was refraining from further legal action while the matter is under consideration.
They argue, in part, that the NCAA was wrong relying on the findings of the Louis Freeh report. Penn State commissioned the former FBI director to complete that report on the university’s response to the former football coach who has been convicted of sexually abusing boys on campus.
Gene Grabowski, senior vice president at Levick Strategic Communications, said if Penn State wants to get past the crisis it will have to find a way to get those appealing the decisions to stop. Otherwise, Grabowski said, from a communications perspective, the continuing story will be disastrous for the university.
“It keeps everyone thinking and talking about the past and old wounds, rather than moving forward,” he said.
He compared it to Republicans wanting to talk about Watergate. He said while there may be more nuances and precise facts than have come out, the big truth is wrongdoing took place.
“The university needs to make a public call for moving forward, taking the penalties and asking everyone to come together,” Grabowski said.
That may be what happens at 5 p.m. today, when trustees vote via teleconference on supporting accepting the NCAA sanctions.
Gary Roberts, dean and professor at the Indiana University Robert McKinney School of Law, Indianapolis, said he thinks the only entity that would have a legal standing to challenge the decision with the NCAA or in court would be the university itself.
“Having said that, who is the university? That gets kind of tricky,” Roberts said.
He said that would depend on factors such as the university’s governing documents, structure and tradition. In any case, a challenge would have to come from a majority of the board — not just a single member.
“Certainly I think a strong argument could be made that the NCAA did not have the legal authority to do to one of its members what it did because its own rules don’t provide for it,” Roberts said.
Roberts, a sports law expert, said he thinks the NCAA knew the legal risks, but was hoping Penn State wouldn’t challenge them. The association assumed and appears to have been proven correct that the president and most trustees wouldn’t want to put the university through a lengthy legal battle.
“The university is not on the side of the angels in this whole case,” Roberts said. “They don’t need to have the world reminded on a daily basis that this happened at Penn State.”
He said his guess is that the majority of board members won’t support fighting it, not because they agree with it, but because they want to put it behind them.
The penalties the two sides agreed to in the decree aren’t within the normal sanctioning process, and the NCAA has said the decree isn’t subject to appeal.
Erickson signed off on the penalties before seeking the approval of the full board of trustees, saying if he hadn’t done so, Penn State would have been facing the death penalty for football.
A Penn State spokesman has said that full board approval wasn’t required. Even so, the university board is meeting via telephone today to vote on it.
Trustee Ryan McCombie, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL who lives in State College, has pointed to the importance of due process and finding out the full truth as reasons behind his challenging the NCAA ruling.
McCombie, however, sent trustees an email Friday, a copy of which was obtained by the Centre Daily Times, saying that to allow time for review of the situation, he will hold off on pursuing the appeal or considering other legal actions.
His move follows a letter Friday from trustee Joel Myers to other board members urging the university to delay today’s vote on the NCAA decree and instead review the Freeh report and the potential impact of the sanctions on the university.
“It is time to pause, reflect and be fully informed as a board before casting further votes that will impact the present and future of this great university,” McCombie wrote. “Let’s not continue this rush to judgment and pursuit of closure for the sake of closure.”
Recognized sports historian Ron Smith, of Lemont, said while Erickson has a lot of respect, if he makes another important decision like that without going to the board, “he’s going to be a goner.”
The decision came as Erickson and board Chairwoman Karen Peetz have pledged greater openness.
Smith, a professor emeritus of sports history at Penn State, said the NCAA is coming late into the game of penalizing schools.
“They should have been doing this about half a century ago,” he said. “The NCAA is completely run by university presidents. ... But you’re not going to get reform from presidents. Presidents are cheerleaders, not reformers.”
He said he understands the $60 million penalty against Penn State, but not taking away the university’s past victories.
“The most hypocritical thing they did in my estimation is taking 111 victories away from Joe Paterno and one away from Tom Bradley,” Smith said.
“I think once you start doing what the NCAA is doing on victories, unless you’re hypocritical, you’ll do it to everybody and you’ll do it after they die,” Smith said.
Anne Danahy can be reached at 231-4648. Follow her on Twitter@AnneDanahy.