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July 24, 2012, 12:01 AM ET
Philosophically confused organizations can be right

by John Gasaway

Warning: 100 percent basketball-free.

In December I wrote that the NCAA “has nothing whatsoever to contribute to the ongoing pursuit of justice at Penn State.” I was wrong. The NCAA has proven me wrong.

At the time I wrote those words I was worried that 1) The NCAA would get in the way of real-life justice being visited on perpetrators of real-life crimes and misdeeds; and 2) The NCAA would try to address the most reprehensible chapter in Penn State’s history through the morally incommensurate medium of its furtively and needlessly opaque Committee on Infractions.

Then Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of sexual assault, the statue of the late Joe Paterno came down, and the NCAA surprised me by showing that they too understood there was nothing at all COI-variety ordinary about this case.

To its credit the NCAA went outside their customary routine in crafting a suitably draconian yet laudably surgical consent decree with Penn State. The Nittany Lions will find themselves unable to succeed at football for years to come, but they’re allowed to continue playing the sport because PSU has a $60 million fine to pay, and because the program has a small town in central Pennsylvania to support. For their part, Penn State players will be allowed to transfer immediately to other programs without penalty.

The total absence of any TV ban, even a brief one, surprised me. Aside from that, this strikes me as more or less a just outcome. Whether or not you agree with that assessment, you’re probably giving all the credit or blame to the NCAA. But before we go there allow me to offer a word of praise for the new administration at Penn State.

It was the new administration that commissioned the Freeh Report, that followed through on that action and actually made their staff and their files completely accessible to investigators, and, most crucially, agreed with the rest of the NCAA’s member institutions on a fitting punishment. The NCAA’s being criticized in some quarters for a rush to judgment and for casting aside its normal procedures, but the sudden and blinding transparency of this new Penn State administration made the usual fact-finding exertions unnecessary. The facts had been found. To say the NCAA should have gone through those motions anyway is a novel contention, to say the least.

And speaking of novel contentions, as a critic of the NCAA of long standing, I’m embarrassed by much of what passes for NCAA criticism today. We appear to have reached the point where many of the NCAA’s putative critics are more NCAA-y than the NCAA. Take the fevered discussion of whether the NCAA really had “jurisdiction” in this matter. Has the NCAA’s eager adoption of quasi-legalistic formulations (for what is almost always, Jerry Sandusky notwithstanding, a discussion about games) really infected the rest of us to the point where we all have to talk like this?

Asking whether the NCAA has “jurisdiction” to punish Penn State is like asking whether Augusta National has jurisdiction to repaint the locker room. Both organizations are voluntary associations, and in both organizations the members can do pretty much whatever they want to each other. In this case, the NCAA had the agreement and support not only of its constituent members (through the unanimous vote of its executive committee), but also of Penn State itself.

Just because the NCAA is fundamentally wrong about who they are, why they’re here, and what they should be doing doesn’t mean they can’t be right about penalizing a football program, an athletic department, and a university that turned a blind eye to a pedophile. Penn State acted for years as though football were more important than real life. It’s not, and it fell to the NCAA — the unfailingly bureaucratic, needlessly secretive, philosophically muddled NCAA — to push back accordingly.

The push was delivered skillfully. I’m as surprised as you are, but it was.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

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