Misplaced Outrage over the NCAA’s Decision to Reduce Sanctions on Penn State

In a USA Today column published on September 8, Nina Mandell is livid about the lessening of sanctions imposed on Penn State two years ago in connection with charges of child sexual abuse against assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Those sanctions, which included a $60 million fine, a reduction in football scholarships, and a four-year ban on post-season play, led to Sandusky’s resignation and subsequent conviction, the resignation of Penn State’s president, as well as to hounding and untimely death of “Joe Pa” (Joe Paterno), the Nittany Lions’ iconic head coach.

The NCAA should never have gotten involved in the Penn State affair in the first place. It is a rules’ enforcing institution, not a law enforcement body. The charges against Sandusky should have been handled as a criminal matter exclusively by Pennsylvania’s public prosecutors and Sandusky’s guilty plea should have ended the scandal. For what purpose was Penn State fined, football scholarships cut, and football players not involved in the actions of one assistant coach denied the privilege of participating in conference championships and post-season bowl games? By what authority did the NCAA intervene?

The late Gary Becker and other economists have called the NCAA America’s strongest cartel, sharply criticizing its policies limiting college athletes’ compensation to a “full-ride” scholarships, regulating recruiting practices and many other aspects of the college game under the laughable pretext of “preserving amateurism.” The rents generated by such regulations flow primarily to coaching staffs and to the central administrations of big-time college athletic programs, not to the athletes who are responsible for producing billions in revenue for athletic budgets nationwide from ticket sales and TV broadcasts.

In the Penn State matter, the cartel went far beyond its organizing principles and stated purposes, giving a new meaning to the term “bureaucratic mission creep.” The NCAA’s administrative staff has a hard enough time ferreting out rules violations. It is ill equipped for and therefore should not be in the business of enforcing criminal laws.

William F. Shughart II is Research Fellow and Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the J. Fish Smith Professor in Public Choice at Utah State University, past President of the Southern Economic Association, and editor of the Independent book, Taxing Choice: The Predatory Politics of Fiscal Discrimination.
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