While announcing unprecedented penalties on Penn State, NCAA president Mark Emmert and Ed Ray, the chairman of the NCAA’s executive committee and Oregon State’s president, sent a message to ever big-time sports program in the country.
“The lesson here is one of maintaining the appropriate balance of our values,” Emmert said. “Why do we play sports in the first place and does that culture ever get to a point where it overwhelms the value of the academy? Those things we all hold dear. If you find yourself in a position where the athletic culture is taking precedent over the academic culture, then a variety of bad things can occur.”
Bad things happened at Penn State under former coach Joe Paterno and as a result the NCAA levied a series of punishments including a $60 million sanction, a four-year football postseason ban, the loss of scholarships over a four-year period and a vacation of all wins dating to 1998. The school was also placed on a five-year probation.
The Big Ten also declared the Nittany Lions ineligible for the conference championship game for the next four years and will donate the school’s league bowl revenues during that time to charities.
“One would obviously hope that we would never ever see anything of this magnitude or egregiousness in our lives, but we do have to make sure the cautionary tale of athletics overwhelming core value of an institution and losing sight of why we’re really participating in these activities can occur,” Emmert said. “And that’s the balance that every university needs to strike.”
Bud Withers weighed in with reactions and objects to the four-year bowl ban while others have questioned whether the NCAA had the authority to levy such penalties on Penn State.
Ray made it clear the NCAA executive committee felt it needed to take a stand.
“The presidents and chancellors said: ‘We’ve had enough. This has to stop. We have to reassert our responsibilities and charge to oversee collegiate athletics,’ ” Ray said. “Does this send a message? The message is the presidents and the chancellors are in charge. Somebody asked is there a deeper meaning here and I think it’s important for all of you to realize these are extraordinary circumstances. The executive committee has the authority to act on behalf of the entire association in extraordinary circumstances and we’ve chosen to exercise that authority.
“The cautionary tale here is I think that every major college and university needs to do a gut-check and ask where are we on the appropriate balance between the culture in athletics and the broader culture in the university and make certain that they got the balance right. If not make certain that they take corrective action.”
Following today’s press conference I spoke with Washington athletic director Scott Woodward.
Here’s the interview.
(Emmert said universities can learn a lesson from the penalties levied on Penn State. What did you take away from today’s events?) “I’ve taken something from it from Day 1. This is always for me a time when you’re dealing with children – and in the Penn State case victims – that they are first and foremost. They are what’s paramount in this subject. It’s not football. It’s not athletics. It’s children. I’m a father first and foremost and an athletic director second. My daily take away whether it be walking through Alaska Airlines Arena or whether it be walking the soccer fields and watching our summer campers participate is are we doing enough to be vigilant and protect them?
“I think that in a way helps. We ask hard questions of our coaches. ‘Do we have proper background checks on all of the counselors?’ ‘Are we doing the right things to protect them like never having a child alone with a counselor?’ There always has to be two counselors present. That’s one of our policies. We do these things and I think it makes us when you witness something as horrific as what happened at Penn State, it just makes you more vigilant and more attentive to making sure the welfare of children is paramount.”
(The other thing that struck me is Emmert alluded to a hero-worship culture in college sports and sounded as if he’s in favor of downsizing big-time college sports. That’s a topic for another day, but as an athletic director how do you create a culture where a program isn’t too big to fail when in essence college sports is growing exponentially every day?) “The good news for us is the culture and athletic departments at big universities, the days of omnipotent coaches is a thing of the past. You can get too big, but more important is are you too powerful? … Absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you ask for an example where someone too powerful at an institution being a coach or an athletic director, I would be hard-pressed to find one. Those are vestiges of the past.”
(Are athletic departments willing to give up some of that power to compliance officers and if so would that solve most of the problems we continually see in college sports?) “I don’t think it’s a matter of giving up power, I think most of our coaches want compliance in their world. They don’t want to make mistakes. They want to do the right thing. Let’s get this straight, 99 percent of the people want to do the right thing. And they want to do what’s in the best interest of the university and their program. All of the coaches I’ve ever dealt with are happy to have compliance in their world and looking over their shoulder as well as giving them advice on how to proceed or how to deal with certain matters. That’s a positive part of the culture especially when you have problems like we’ve had here at the University of Washington. I think a positive outcome is you get to see that there can be things that can be altered and avoided.”
(In the wake of the Penn State story, have you done anything specifically at UW in terms of conversations with officials or changes in policy?) “No. We just have stepped up our vigilance and have stepped up reviewing what we’re doing and asking if we’re doing it properly. We’re asking ourselves tough questions whether it be at President (Michael) Young’s level or whether it be at our coaches meeting. We are always asking ourselves the tough questions and making sure that we do the right thing and that’s the most important lesson that we’ve learned from this horrid affair.”