NCAA acting on ‘punisher’s remorse’? Sports law experts debate motivations for easing of Penn State sanctions

mdawson@centredaily.comSeptember 28, 2013 

NCAA officials extolled their decision to restore Penn State’s football scholarships early as a move that recognized everything the university had done to make reforms after the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

They even said they’d even consider tossing out another sanction, the bowl ban, as an incentive if Penn State continues the reforms that have aggressively been undertaken over the past year.

But some sports law experts who’ve followed the NCAA question if that’s the whole story. They believe the decision was shaped by external factors and a feeling that the sanctions were too harsh.

“I think what’s going on here is largely ... punisher’s remorse of sorts,” said Geoffrey Rapp, a sports law expert at the University of Toledo in Ohio. “As they now have lived with the sanction for a year, they realized the victims are the current players. It’s not really putting any hurt on the people that we think are really responsible.”

Rapp also points to the recent settlement in a lawsuit filed by former collegiate athletes over video games using their likenesses despite the notion of amateurism. Video game company EA Sports and the Collegiate Licensing Co. settled, leaving the NCAA as the only defendant.

Rapp thinks the settlement makes the NCAA vulnerable to bad publicity and exposes the organization as “sanctimonious.”

The NCAA has watched as the NFL addressed the hot-button issue of player concussions and injuries, as the league settled a lawsuit with thousands of former professional players and their families for $765 million, Rapp said.

And then there’s the controversy surrounding Heisman-winning Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, who was accused of taking money for signing autographs. The NCAA concluded there wasn’t enough evidence showing that Manziel had violated NCAA rules, but the university and organization agreed the quarterback was to be suspended for the first half of the team’s opening game this season nevertheless.

‘The moral high horse’

“All of these are examples of duplicitousness and double standards on the NCAA, which then makes them uncomfortable with the moral high horse they were riding last summer,” Rapp said, referring to the time the Penn State sanctions were handed down.

Michael McCann, a sports law expert at the University of New Hampshire, pointed to another front on which the NCAA could be on the defensive.

Lawmakers from Pennsylvania and Ohio introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would require universities to guarantee four-year scholarships to players in collision sports regardless of injuries, and ensure that universities accused of rules violations would have due process.

The legislation’s authors, Reps. Charlie Dent, R-Allentown, and Joyce Beatty, D-Ohio, say the bill would require transparency from the NCAA and improve the health and education of student-athletes.

“That bill is threatening in the sense that it could lead to congressional hearings,” McCann said. “The NCAA may want to appear more flexible in how it applies its rules, and I think there’s increasing support among sports and fans and even among college coaches and college (athletic directors), more of a sense that players should have some increased level of compensation.”

An ‘existential threat’?

Rapp even went as far as saying the NCAA restored Penn State’s sanctions as way of making friends with Penn State to establish a possible ally in the fights ahead, even an “existential threat.”

McCann didn’t think the NCAA’s existence is at stake, as the organization has the financial means to harbor itself from a worst-case scenario — a push for the the NCAA to be disbanded.

The reduction in the Penn State sanctions was approved by the NCAA after it came as a recommendation from the former senator assigned to oversee Penn State’s progress in making the reforms outlined in the consent decree and an athletics integrity agreement.

The monitor, former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, said Penn State did not ask for a reduction and that the recommendation was his idea alone. Penn State had been weighing some kind of proposal to the NCAA that included a modification of the scholarship penalty.

The reduction obviously was greeted on campus and inside administration buildings with delight.

In a public statement, President Rodney Erickson thanked the employees who worked to enact new policies, reforms and protocols that he’s said have made the university a better and safer place. Students, too, said they were glad to see the change.

‘Right to move forward’

A lawyer for one of the young men abused by Jerry Sandusky said his client doesn’t mind the reduction in sanctions.

“The Freeh investigation and report and the settlements with a large majority of the victims along with many positive steps by Penn State, including implementation of the Freeh recommendations, has earned Penn State the right to move forward as an institution,” said Thomas Kline, the lawyer for the young man known as Victim 5 in the grand jury presentment. “The lessening of the sanctions is the first of what should be many further steps by the NCAA to recognize PSU’s progress, and more along this line is rightfully encouraged from many quarters.”

A victims advocate from the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape didn’t take issue with the NCAA’s action.

“To me, it comes down to withholding educational opportunities to student-athletes,” Kristen Houser said. “I think giving that back is fine. This coach and these young students weren’t here ... when the crimes occurred.

“If this is a reward or an acknowledgment the university is taking seriously the need to oversee what’s going on in athletics, that seems like an appropriate starting place. It’s money for education and sports.”

Mike Dawson can be reached at 231-4616. Follow him on Twitter @MikeDawsonCDT.

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