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NCAA Bungles Penn State Yet Again

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Newly released documents show that the National Collegiate Athletic Association was in contact with the investigators of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University. The disclosures call into question the supposedly independent review that led to some of the harshest penalties in college sports history.

ESPN's Don Van Natta Jr. reported that the court documents include correspondence between the NCAA and the company led by former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh that began soon after the university commissioned the investigation. Freeh's company e-mailed and met with officials from both the NCAA and the Big Ten several times. The NCAA provided Freeh with a list of 32 suggested questions concerning Penn State's football culture and the failure of its leaders to report criminal behavior.

The documents were filed Tuesday in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania by State Senator Jake Corman and Treasurer Rob McCord as part of their lawsuit against the NCAA. The suit was originally intended to challenge the $60 million fine levied against Penn State. Recently, however, it has focused on casting doubt on a consent decree in which the university accepted the sanctions, some of which were eased in September. Last week, another strategic document dump by Corman and McCord showed there were doubts within the NCAA that it had the jurisdiction to punish Penn State. NCAA officials ultimately hoped concern for the university's reputation would lead school trustees to agree to the penalties, a move characterized as a "bluff" by the NCAA and "blackmail" by others. At least one former trustee is calling for the university to take civil action against the NCAA to recover some of the financial penalty.

The documents made public yesterday suggest the NCAA might have been inappropriately involved in the Freeh investigation. It isn't a stretch to think that the NCAA, and particularly President Mark Emmert, wanted to seize an opportunity to demonstrate that they were taking a tough line as a way to stem their increasing irrelevance. The NCAA used similarly fishy tactics in its investigation of the University of Miami's booster scandal, and Emmert is known to be concerned about his image and the association's public-relations standing. 

It's equally fair to wonder, as association officials did, whether law enforcement rather than the NCAA was the appropriate institution to handle the discipline in this case, which involved heinous criminal acts. But it's naive to think the NCAA had any choice other than to come down hard on Penn State. As ESPN's John Gasaway notes, complaints  about NCAA overreach would have been drowned out by outrage over the association's selective priorities had it failed to adequately punish the university. If the National Football League deserved criticism for past efforts to hide behind the law, and for a disciplinary record suggesting that it holds pot to be a worse crime than domestic violence, the NCAA would have been similarly panned for any perceived light treatment of the cover-up of rampant child sex abuse. 

The recent documents show what we already know: The NCAA is a bully. The communication between the association and Freeh's team may have amounted to some degree of "coordination," as Corman alleged.

These disclosures, however, don't completely negate the investigation's results. Penn State truthers have been eager to find any reason to dismiss the exhaustive findings of the Freeh report. But Penn State itself is quick to deny that the NCAA swayed the outcome of the inquiry. The organization may have suggested questions to Freeh, but there's no evidence of any attempt to influence the answers. And as Penn State spokesman David La Torre said, "There are many proposed questions that are not addressed in the final July 12, 2012 report."

Penn State also claims that the disclosure of e-mails was selective and doesn't reflect the full context of communication between the NCAA and Freeh. And it's important to remember that these documents were released by two politicians with aspirations to higher office who may be trying to score political points with a constituency that is still fuming over the treatment of its beloved football team. Corman, whose district includes the town of State College where the university is based, was recently elected majority leader by his fellow Republicans in the State Senate. Meanwhile, McCord recently ran for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Had he won, he would have been pitted against incumbent Tom Corbett, whose involvement in the decision to fire head coach Joe Paterno inspires resentment among Penn State alumni.

There's certainly enough blame to go around. The NCAA probably overreached, and the university was probably too quick to distance itself from the scandal. There's also plenty of blame left over for the three university administrators who face trial for failing to report the abuse to authorities. There's room to blame Paterno for not doing enough. And yes, we can still condemn the "football culture" that makes it difficult for Penn State apologists to accept what happened, as well as the capacity of opportunistic politicians to take advantage of the scandal. No one connected to this mess is entirely innocent, but we all lose as it drags on. 

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net