Sunday, July 22, 2012

Penn State Punishment Likely Not Unprecedented

As we await the fate of Penn State from the NCAA tomorrow, here's what is forgotten in the "SMU is the only death penalty" meme.  We're talking football, not NCAA sports.

There are two cases of high profile misdeeds leading to the end of programs, but both in men's basketball and ironically, both from Louisiana.

An investigation at then Southwestern Louisiana began with the right-minded move by boosters to provide scholarship money to African-American basketball players.  The Louisiana legislature did not allow scholarships to blacks in the 1960s to its public universities, but the move brought the NCAA to town and they discovered far worse things happening -- systematic academic fraud that ranged from forging signatures on transcripts to admitting five players who lacked the GPAs to be at USL to general recruiting violations and extra financial benefits.  The Ragin Cajun men's basketball program was suspended for two years by the NCAA from fall 1973 until spring 1975.

In the late 1980s, a point shaving scandal at Tulane led to the discovery of a wide range of NCAA violations.  The combination led the president of the New Orleans private school to suspend the men's basketball program.

One has to suppose that, well, since that's basketball it's OK; football is too important for that kind of action and what happened to SMU was "too devastating" to allow again.


Consider that the "death penalty" was designed to address a cavalier attitude in the 80s and 90s that cheating was just part of the NCAA game if you wanted to win at the highest level and it was "worth the cost".  If you had violations while on probation, the institution had not learned its lesson -- thus the suspension of the program.

We find ourselves in the 21st century with a different kind of problem -- protecting the "brand" at all costs.  The cover up of NCAA violations is one thing. Sweeping federal and state law breaking under the carpet goes to the core function of a state agency.

Whatever the NCAA has in store, Mark Emmertt telegraphed on the Tavis Smiley Show last week that he and the organization were ready to create an unprecedented response to an unprecedented problem.  After all, the Big Ten was hinting at throwing out Penn State (remember, the 11th member who was not exactly well received by the academic elites in the old-school league) -- in the age of conference realignment and expansion it doesn't get much more drastic than that.

The talk of crippling the program is a bit much.  Recall the "just short of death penalty" move in 2002 and a five-year probation against Alabama football didn't exactly end the legendary program.  If I remember correctly, they have not one, but two, national titles since then.

What happened in State College, Pa., is different.  And the fate of the Nittany Lions lies not in the NCAA but in the public at large.  Think not?

How many times do the basketball powerhouse of City College of New York and New York University grace the headlines?

Because these national champions of the 1950s were the heart of a seven-school mob-based point shaving conspiracy that shook the very foundations of college sports.

With the NIT ruling the basketball world, that virtually none of the New York Seven realistically survived (only St. John's is major Division I hoops) tells us that Penn State's disappearance from the ranks of the football elite is neither far fetched nor historically unprecedented.

What may end Penn State football?  The combination of crushing penalties -- beyond what Alabama and others have endured -- and the public's memory.  Bama, USC, Miami -- all had loyal fans willing to outlast their times in the wilderness.

The shame of what transpired in Pennsylvania might be more than can be endured.

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