Will Emmert and the NCAA Fine Michigan State $60M and Gut Its Football or Gymnastics Programs? Not Likely.

If there is one thing about the Jerry Sandusky scandal that smacked of comeuppance and backstabbing rather than altruistic justice, it had to have been the NCAA’s threat of the death penalty to Penn State’s football program and eventual $60 million fine, elimination of hundreds of wins, suspension of eligibility to the post season, and a sharp restriction of scholarships. Orchestrated by NCAA President Mark Emmert and then NCAA Executive Committee Chair Ed Ray (from Oregon State), the penalties initially levied based on their assessment that Joe Paterno and the Penn State athletic department (and in particular the football program) had for years conspired to cover up a known pedophile and football coach to protect the reputation of the university. This viewpoint was certainly heavily influenced by the outrage in the press at the time, the Louis Freeh report, and tremendous amount of resentment by other NCAA member institutions of Paterno and Penn State, who often railed against the lax academic standards in intercollegiate sports. It was later revealed that none of the allegations against the PSU football program were in fact true, albeit in the face of Sandusky being convicted of child molestation and three university administrators being convicted of negligence (1). A subsequent lawsuit by Pennsylvania public officials against the NCAA resulted in the organization substantially backpedaling, settling the suit and sharply reducing penalties in exchange for saving face and being able to claim publicly that justice still had been served (2).

One week following the original NCAA sanctions, Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon took over from Ray as Executive Committee (and later Board of Governors) chairman. Simon had been elected in a self-declared mandate to “build trust and confidence back in [collegiate sports]” following the Penn State debacle, where “purposeful and premeditated” mistakes were made. Simon then went further, giving voice to her worry about ethics in collegiate sports in general and Michigan State in specific, reminding school employees of their obligation to report sexual abuse and assault.

Fast forward seven years and we find that the shoe is on the other foot. Michigan State is the object of media outrage over the Larry Nasser scandal, just convicted of molesting a number of gymnasts and other athletes. Simon has resigned in disgrace, and several Michigan State administrators are under pressure over their handling of Nasser.

The NCAA has announced their intent to investigate the university. Will Emmert and the Board of Governors levy a $60 million fine and take away several winning seasons of the Michigan State football program? Will it lose scholarships and playoff opportunities? Will it waive transfer restrictions for the Michigan State football team like was done to Penn State? I doubt it. In fact I doubt this will even happen to the Michigan State gymnastics program.

Why target football at all? After all Nasser had nothing to do with the football program. Well, for the same logic that was applied to Penn State–the football program is the university’s biggest public draw and the foundation upon which the school fund raises its money and recruits students and donors. Sandusky, although himself a defensive coordinator for the football team until retiring in 1999, was in fact accused and convicted of molesting children attending his charitable organization’s events–which had nothing to do with the conduct of the football program. Nevertheless the NCAA’s hammer was dropped on the PSU football program–seen as the most important element of the university’s public strategy. So too is the football program at Michigan State.

Of course none of the sanctions initially applied to Penn State will come to pass at Michigan State. The just-resigned president was chair of the NCAA Board of Governors. The NCAA body has no enmity for the coaches in the football program. The NCAA will be unwilling to take sanctions against the football program given the publicly tenuous connection (with no former football coach involved) between the university’s alleged desire to protect its reputation and the conduct of the football program. And most of all, the NCAA will be reluctant to engage in moral equivalence between the actions at Penn State and the actions at Michigan State, if nothing else to cover up the fact that the collegiate sports body may have no influence over, and thus no practical interest in, punishing criminal rather than scholastic athletics misdeeds at a member institution.

(1) Penn State’s president, athletic director, and senior vice president for finance and business were later convicted for their role in failing to address allegations raised by the football program against Sandusky. 

(2) The conclusions of the Freeh report with respect to Paterno, any other PSU football coach, and the PSU football program eventually were revealed to be conjecture not later substantiated by the Pennsylvania grand jury impaneled in the Sandusky case or the testimony at Sandusky’s trial. Subsequent legal cases involving abuse claimants and the university’s insurance carrier have included some unsubstantiated hearsay regarding Paterno, other football coaches, and the football program’s knowledge of Sandusky’s activities in his charity before he retired–made clearly by the plaintiffs in an attempt to reduce or enlarge damages (depending on the party involved) collectible from the university rather than in an effort to establish any verifiable facts. Paterno was cleared by the grand jury and the state attorney general’s office. He died shortly after being fired by the university’s politically appointed board of trustees.

9/1/2018 Update: The NCAA announced that no penalties would be assessed against Michigan State’s gymnastics, football, or basketball programs in response to the Nasser and other scandals. The NCAA acknowledged that its athletics rules had no application to the criminal matters at the university. Current Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman vouched for the football and basketball coaches (the women’s gymnastics coach Kathie Klages has left the school) . “Mark [Dantonio] and Tom [Izzo] represent the athletic department and Michigan State University with integrity.” Quite the difference from that experienced at Penn State. Then again neither Dantonio or Izzo was faced with terminal cancer and died before the NCAA and state courts ruled on guilt or innocence, or a university board of directors that prized its own reputation over that of the university’s. 

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