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NCAA President Tries to Assuage Worries Over Penn State Precedent

Grapevine, Tex. — In the months following the NCAA’s steep punishment of Pennsylvania State University for its response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal, many people have expressed concerns about the dangerous precedent it could set. Among the chief worries is that the association might sidestep its traditional judiciary process and get involved in future cases involving alleged criminal activity by athletes.

Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president, has tried everything he can to allay those concerns. And at the annual meeting of Division I-A faculty athletics representatives and athletics directors here on Monday, he provided a bit more context for the association’s Penn State penalties and why they probably won’t lead to similar intervention in the future.

If the Penn State violations had solely involved the criminal acts of Sandusky, the former Nittany Lions assistant football coach convicted in June of 45 counts of sexually abusing children, “We would’ve said, ‘Gee, what an awful circumstance, but it’s not our issue,’” Emmert told a group of faculty reps this morning. But “the institution’s failure to deal with those issues made it our issue.”

While plenty of people, including Graham B. Spanier, Penn State’s former president, have blown holes in the report the NCAA relied on to issue its penalties, the university’s acceptance of the report’s findings allowed the NCAA to impose its unprecedented penalties, which included a $60-million fine and four-year bowl ban.

The NCAA’s action has bewildered legal experts, compliance directors, and others who believe the association did not have the authority to institute such a far-reaching set of penalties, which also require the university to carry out dozens of recommendations to clean up its oversight of sports.

“Are you prepared to say this is different, it’s a one-and-done?” Josephine R. Potuto, the faculty athletics representative at the University of Nebraska, asked Emmert pointedly.

“If you’re asking me, ‘Will there be a case like Penn State in 10 to 15 years?,’ my answer is, ‘I have no idea. I certainly hope not. We all would hope and pray not,’” Emmert responded. “But in my 30 years of working in higher education, I’ve seen one case that would justify these extraordinary actions, and that was it.”

Potuto, a former chair of the NCAA’s Division I Committee on Infractions, then asked Emmert if the NCAA was considering writing a policy or bylaw, as some news reports have suggested, that would cover its ability to intervene as it did with Penn State.

“No, not precisely,” he said. “The authority I used in the Penn State case is something I never plan to use again.”

But in a tweet responding to Emmert’s comments, Michael McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute and a professor of law at Vermont Law School, said that legal precedent from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allows the NCAA to issue sanctions without providing due process to its member institutions. Because of that, he wrote, “Emmert can change his ‘plans’ as he wishes.”

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