Monday, July 23, 2012

NCAA's Penn State Sanctions are Disproportionate, Unfair and Hypocritical

"The sanctions announced by the NCAA today defame the legacy and contributions of a great coach and educator without any input from our family or those who knew him best. That the President, the Athletic Director and the Board of Trustees accepted this unprecedented action by the NCAA without requiring a full due process hearing before the Committee on Infractions is an abdication of their responsibilities and a breach of their fiduciary duties to the University and the 500,000 alumni."--Paterno family statement

Jerry Sandusky's sex abuse crimes are abhorrent and he deserves the severest possible penalty under the law--but even he deserved and received due process and his day in court. Sandusky received justice but his case has now shifted into a witch hunt that appears to be designed to consume and destroy the reputation and legacy of Joe Paterno. Paterno is an easy target because he is deceased and thus not able to defend himself and his actions/alleged actions. Although a Pennsylvania grand jury declined to charge Paterno and there is no direct evidence that Paterno knowingly covered up Sandusky's crimes, Paterno's name is being smeared based on the words "reasonable to conclude": the Freeh Report interviewed hundreds of people and reviewed over three million documents but failed to find a single proverbial "smoking gun" implicating Paterno. Instead, the Freeh Report engaged in some form of literary interpretation and determined that it would be, in Freeh's repeatedly stated words, "reasonable to conclude" that Paterno actively sought to cover up Sandusky's crimes--even dating back to a time when law enforcement authorities had investigated Sandusky and been unable to prove that Sandusky had in fact committed any crimes.

The accusations against Paterno simply do not make much sense; why would Paterno report Mike McQueary's allegations about Sandusky to Tim Curley and Gary Schultz if Paterno's primary motivation was to cover things up at all costs? Paterno has a well documented history of suspending players for even minor infractions and for emphasizing academics/integrity over wins. Paterno did not cover up or whitewash small, technical NCAA violations so why would he actively cover up heinous crimes? Paterno said that in retrospect he wishes that he had done more; it is reasonable to suggest that Paterno should have taken a more active role to ensure that his superiors properly handled the Sandusky matter but it is more than a bit of a reach to assert that Paterno deliberately covered up child sex abuse just so that he could win more football games.

Would you want the sum total worth of your life to be defined by what other people think is "reasonable to conclude" based on reading emails that you did not write and that were composed by people who currently are facing charges of perjury (former Penn State administrators Gary Schultz and Tim Curley)? There certainly appears to be plenty of direct evidence to implicate those two individuals; at the very least, decisions permanently affecting Paterno's legacy and status should wait until the Curley and Schultz trials hopefully shed more light on what exactly Paterno did and did not do.

The NCAA sanctions against Penn State are unprecedented. The NCAA fined Penn State $60 million, with those funds to be dedicated to an endowment to help child abuse victims. That is certainly a worthy endeavor, although it is not clear how it was decided what amount the fine should be or who specifically will bear that cost; if money is being taken away from the education of innocent Penn State students (as opposed to be taken away from people who actually committed crimes) then that is not right no matter how noble the cause is.

The NCAA also banned the Penn State football program from postseason play for four years, enforced scholarship reductions lasting for four years and placed the athletic department on probation for five years. Perhaps the most stunning decision is that the NCAA vacated 112 Penn State wins from 1998-2011, 111 of which had been credited to Paterno's personal record. The cumulative effect of these NCAA punishments hurts Paterno, his former players and current/future Penn State players but it does nothing to punish the men responsible for the actual crimes: Sandusky (whose fate correctly lies in the hands of the justice system), Curley and Schultz. Also left unscathed is former Penn State President Graham Spanier, who was heavily criticized in the Freeh Report but has not been charged with a crime and has vehemently denied that he knew about and covered up Sandusky's crimes.

The NCAA claims that it is acting so harshly against Penn State to make a statement proving that collegiate sports should never be elevated over academics and should not become "too big to fail" in the words of NCAA President Mark Emmert. Are we really supposed to believe that Penn State and Penn State alone stood for the worst of what college sports represents? Jerry Sandusky was a serial child sexual predator who manipulated and deceived his family, the people at the Second Mile charity and others around him but his crimes do not represent the totality of what Penn State stood for during Paterno's era; Paterno guided many players who became productive members of society and his teams were consistently successful on the field without committing violations off of the field. Instead of self-righteously singling out Penn State the NCAA should take down the entire bloated system that has essentially transformed college sports into minor leagues for football and basketball in which all of the profits go to the NCAA, the athletic departments and the coaches while the players are not paid anything other than scholarships. Why should college football and basketball coaches be the highest paid state employees in any state? Paterno ran his program with more integrity than just about anyone else--based on the documented record, not based on what someone decides it is "reasonable to conclude"--but if the NCAA feels that big time college sports are somehow inherently corrupt (which is certainly "reasonable to conclude" at this point) then Emmert and his cohorts should refund all of the television and sponsorship money that they receive and let some other organization take over minor league football and minor league basketball in this country while the NCAA sets up a new structure in which college sports consists entirely of intramural games that are not sources of billions of dollars in revenue.

The NCAA is a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner--but who judges the NCAA? The NCAA has a huge book filled with Byzantine rules that it enforces or fails to enforce solely at its own discretion, with no outside oversight. Big name programs like Miami (the infamous "U"), Oklahoma, Nebraska and others had endemic problems/crimes/violations yet their wins and championships have not been vacated; to cite just one example, Nebraska's sainted Coach Tom Osborne kept Lawrence Phillips on the team despite the fact that Phillips assaulted his girlfriend. Phillips ultimately played a major role when Nebraska won the 1995 national championship. Phillips has since faced numerous criminal charges and is currently serving a term of at least 26 years in prison for committing various assaults. Did Osborne, Nebraska and the NCAA ultimately do right by Phillips--coddling him instead of insisting that he be punished for his crimes and possibly get help for his anger issues--and his victims? Perhaps you say that Phillips' numerous assault cases are not as bad as Sandusky's child abuse crimes; well, what about murder? Is murder worse? In 2003, Baylor basketball player Carlton Dotson murdered his teammate Patrick Dennehy; the ensuing criminal and NCAA investigations turned up a host of crimes and NCAA violations committed by Coach Dave Bliss and other members of the coaching staff/athletic department. NCAA history is full of murder, mayhem, point shaving, academic fraud and grown men lining their pockets while taking advantage of the athletic talents of the young men in their charge, young men who often do not receive much academic, moral or social instruction during their college days.

The NCAA's swift and unprecedented action against Penn State and against Paterno's coaching record is not about justice or morality. This is really about two things: (1) public relations and (2) taking preemptive action to prevent lawsuits against the NCAA. The NCAA is a greedy and inherently corrupt organization that is more concerned about preserving its revenue streams than anything else.

Not only is the NCAA acting with breathtaking hypocrisy, it is doubtful that the NCAA's actions are legal. ESPN's Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player who is also a practicing attorney, says that the NCAA's actions set a precedent that the NCAA is "willing to violate its own rules and act without going through the normal course." Florida-based attorney Michael Buckner goes even further, telling ESPN's Mike Fish that what the NCAA did is "perhaps unconstitutional." Fish reports that Iowa attorney Jerry Crawford says that the NCAA made a "rush to judgment.'' Crawford adds, "I don't know any reason for the NCAA to feel they needed to rush in other than they were getting bullied in the court of public opinion, which they obviously didn't like. What I believe I know is Joe Paterno ran an NCAA sanction[ed] football program that didn't just play within the rules, but played well within the rules. Recruited good people. Got them educations. I thought it was a program the country needed to emulate, not ostracize.''

In Christopher Nolan's recently concluded Batman film trilogy, Batman takes the fall for Harvey Dent (the maniacal "Two Face") so that Dent can be viewed by Gotham's citizens as a hero and as a symbol for justice--but propagating that lie turned out to be very costly for all involved. Jerry Sandusky must be punished for his crimes and anyone who knowingly covered up his crimes should also be punished--but making Joe Paterno and the entire Penn State football program take the fall to supposedly prove the integrity of the NCAA is as bold a lie as saying that Batman is a criminal while Harvey Dent is a hero. Such lies always have dreadful consequences.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Freeh Report Condemns Penn State's Handling of Sandusky Case

The Freeh Report about the Jerry Sandusky child abuse case unilaterally condemns the university--including President Graham Spanier, top ranking officials Gary Schultz and Tim Curley, the Board of Trustees and football coach Joe Paterno--for completely failing to handle the matter appropriately and indeed covering up Sandusky's crimes instead of following federal laws requiring the reporting of accusations against Sandusky. The press release announcing the findings of the Freeh Report includes this statement that will likely forever alter how Penn State and Coach Paterno are viewed:

Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized. Messrs. Spanier, Schultz, Paterno and Curley never demonstrated, through actions or words, any concern for the safety and well-being of Sandusky’s victims until after Sandusky's arrest.

When the information about the Sandusky case initially became publicly known last November and the Penn State Board of Trustees reacted swiftly by firing Coach Paterno without even meeting with him, I felt that Paterno was being made into a scapegoat for others' failures. Obviously, if it is true that Paterno clearly knew about Sandusky's criminal actions and participated in a cover-up--as the Freeh Report alleges--then it was correct to fire Paterno. Unfortunately, Paterno became ill and passed away before Freeh's investigators could interview him--and Freeh himself said that he believed that Paterno intended to fully cooperate with the investigation if his health had permitted him to do so. Freeh and his associates reviewed over 3 million documents/emails and conducted more than 430 interviews but--while it is easily confirmed that Spanier, Curley and Schultz directly acted to conceal evidence of Sandusky's crimes--it seems that the main evidence against Paterno is circumstantial: Freeh interpreted the contents of various emails to mean that Paterno had urged Penn State officials--Paterno's superiors, it must be emphasized--to handle the Sandusky matter internally instead of reporting it to outside authorities. Even if that is true--and there is no "smoking gun" that confirms this interpretation of events--the Penn State President and the university's other leaders had a legal and moral obligation to report the allegations about Sandusky to the proper authorities. The idea that Paterno was more concerned about bad publicity than doing the right thing is belied by the high standards that Paterno set for himself and his football program for several decades. In retrospect it is clear that Paterno should have taken a more active role in addressing the Sandusky allegations--Paterno himself expressed regret that he had not done more--but I still find it hard to believe that Paterno knowingly and deliberately covered up child abuse merely to avoid bad publicity for his football program.

Whether Paterno passively let matters take their course or took an active role in Penn State's deplorable handling of the Sandusky case, this is a sad day not just in college football history but in the history of American sports. If Paterno's "Grand Experiment" is in fact tainted then what hope is there for the future of amateur athletics as a positive force in our society? The influx of big money into amateur athletics has perhaps had an irredeemably corrupting influence; that statement is not meant to justify anything that Paterno failed to do but rather to indicate that if even someone who--over the course of several decades--proved himself to be a fundamentally decent and morally upright person could not stay on the right path then perhaps the entire culture of amateur athletics is inherently corrupt. It is simply inexcusable for the football coach to be the most powerful figure on any college campus--and it is indisputable that this is the case, in practice if not in theory, on many, many college campuses.

Here is a statement from the Paterno family regarding the Freeh Report:

We are in the process of reviewing the Freeh report and will need some time before we can comment in depth on its findings and conclusions. From the moment this crisis broke, Joe Paterno supported a comprehensive, fair investigation. He always believed, as we do, that the full truth should be uncovered.

From what we have been able to assess at this time, it appears that after reviewing 3 million documents and conducting more than 400 interviews, the underlying facts as summarized in the report are almost entirely consistent with what we understood them to be. The 1998 incident was reported to law enforcement and investigated. Joe Paterno reported what he was told about the 2001 incident to Penn State authorities and he believed it would be fully investigated. The investigation also confirmed that Sandusky's retirement in 1999 was unrelated to these events.

One great risk in this situation is a replaying of events from the last 15 years or so in a way that makes it look obvious what everyone must have known and should have done. The idea that any sane, responsible adult would knowingly cover up for a child predator is impossible to accept. The far more realistic conclusion is that many people didn't fully understand what was happening and underestimated or misinterpreted events. Sandusky was a great deceiver. He fooled everyone--law enforcement, his family, coaches, players, neighbors, university officials, and everyone at Second Mile.

Joe Paterno wasn't perfect. He made mistakes and he regretted them. He is still the only leader to step forward and say that with the benefit of hindsight he wished he had done more. To think, however, that he would have protected Jerry Sandusky to avoid bad publicity is simply not realistic. If Joe Paterno had understood what Sandusky was, a fear of bad publicity would not have factored into his actions.

We appreciate the effort that was put into this investigation. The issue we have with some of the conclusions is that they represent a judgment on motives and intentions and we think this is impossible. We have said from the beginning that Joe Paterno did not know Jerry Sandusky was a child predator. Moreover, Joe Paterno never interfered with any investigation. He immediately and accurately reported the incident he was told about in 2001.

It can be argued that Joe Paterno should have gone further. He should have pushed his superiors to see that they were doing their jobs. We accept this criticism. At the same time, Joe Paterno and everyone else knew that Sandusky had been repeatedly investigated by authorities who approved his multiple adoptions and foster children. Joe Paterno mistakenly believed that investigators, law enforcement officials, university leaders and others would properly and fully investigate any issue and proceed as the facts dictated.

This didn't happen and everyone shares the responsibility.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Yankees' Ban of Reggie Jackson is Ridiculous

Reggie Jackson will forever be known to baseball fans as "Mr. October" but his current official title is Special Advisor to the Senior Managing Partners of the Yankees; in that capacity he fills a variety of roles, including giving hitting advice to young players and meeting with the team's current and/or potential business partners. Jackson will not be dispensing tips or shaking any hands for at least a little while, though; Jackson recently made some candid--and quite correct--criticisms of steroid cheater Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees responded not by taking a principled stand but rather by punishing Jackson.

It is disgraceful that Major League Baseball--under the "leadership" of Commissioner Bud Selig--turned a blind eye and deaf ear while players broke federal laws, cheated in a manner that cost honest players a shot at playing professional ball and turned the sport's record book into a farce. Cheaters like Rodriguez should be banned from the sport, not lauded--and it is ridiculous that Mark McGwire has been brought back into the MLB fold as a hitting instructor.

The Yankees are ostracizing Jackson for these remarks about Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, five players linked to performance-enhancing drug (PED) use who passed Jackson on the all-time home run list:

"I don't think the fans really count them, and I agree. I believe that Hank Aaron is the home run king, not Barry Bonds, as great a player as Bonds was." Jackson said of Rodriguez, "Al's a very good friend. But I think there are real questions about his numbers. As much as I like him, what he admitted about his usage does cloud some of his records."

If Selig had any, shall we say, intestinal fortitude, he would have made sure that MLB effectively dealt with the PED issue long before Rodriguez and the others defaced the record book with their tainted names. Rodriguez and the rest of the cheaters should be on the outside of the sport looking in but, instead, Selig will likely do nothing while the sport's flagship franchise exiles one of its greatest players.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Federer Claims Seventh Wimbledon Crown with a Virtuoso Performance

Andy Murray, the fourth ranked tennis player in the world, played the best that he has ever played in a Grand Slam final--and he took just one set from Roger Federer, who claimed his 17th Grand Slam singles title (extending his own record) and seventh Wimbledon crown. Federer's virtuoso performance against Murray provided a classic demonstration of the difference--mentally, physically and emotionally--between an all-time great player and a very, very good player. As ESPN's Darren Cahill aptly put it, Murray did not do anything wrong but Federer just took the match away from him.

Federer's triumph enabled him to equal two modern era records held by Pete Sampras: most Wimbledon singles titles and most weeks as the number one ranked player (286). Federer ended his two year drought without a Grand Slam title, winning his first major since the 2010 Australian Open; prior to this year's Wimbledon, Federer had made it to just one final in his previous nine Grand Slam appearances after advancing to the previous eight finals and winning four of those. During Federer's struggles--by his high standards--it seemed reasonable to wonder if he would ever win another Grand Slam title, just as now it seems reasonable to wonder how many more Grand Slam titles Federer might be able to win despite his relatively advanced age (he turns 31 next month). Sampras had eight winless Grand Slam appearances after winning his 13th Grand Slam title--tying the longest such drought of his career--and he retired at 31 after winning the U.S. Open to claim his 14th major title but Federer believes that he can keep playing at a high level for the foreseeable future. It is too soon to say if this was the last great singular moment of Federer's career or the beginning of some kind of revival.

For several years, it has been popular to acclaim Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time or at least the greatest tennis player of the Open Era; the first claim is virtually impossible to logically prove considering the vast differences (equipment, rules, surfaces, etc.) between the various tennis eras, while the second claim is at the least very debatable considering the simultaneous Wimbledon/French Open dominance achieved by Bjorn Borg, not to mention Rafael Nadal's head to head mastery of Federer and the fact that Nadal won more Grand Slams by age 25 than anyone in tennis history other than Borg.

While the greatest of all-time/greatest of the Open Era questions are more complex than most people seem to be willing to acknowledge, on the occasion of Federer's most recent Wimbledon triumph it makes sense to compare Federer's stellar career at tennis' most prestigious Grand Slam with the numbers posted by Borg and Sampras, the two other most distinguished Wimbledon champions of the Open Era:

Federer has played at Wimbledon 14 times, amassing seven titles plus one other finals appearance. He has lost in the first round three times and has a 66-7 match record (.904).

Sampras also played at Wimbledon 14 times, winning seven titles in seven finals appearances. He lost in the first round twice and he posted a 63-7 match record (.900).

Borg played at Wimbledon nine times, winning five titles in six finals appearances. He never lost earlier than the third round and he posted a 51-4 match record (.927).

Federer and Sampras share the modern era record for most Wimbledon titles but Borg still holds (or, in one instance, shares) several other Wimbledon records:
  1. Career match winning percentage (.927)
  2. 41 consecutive match wins (1976-81)
  3. Only player to win Wimbledon without losing a set (1976)
  4. 24 consecutive sets won (1976-77)
  5. Five consecutive championships won (1976-80; Borg shares this record with Federer, who won five in a row from 2003-07)
However, Borg's most impressive Wimbledon record--and one of the reasons that I still consider him to be the greatest player of the Open Era--is that for three years in a row (1978-80) he captured the "Channel Slam," triumphing first on the slow clay at Roland Garros and then prevailing on the fast grass at Wimbledon. When Borg retired, he was the four-time reigning French Open champion and he held the Open Era record for both Wimbledon titles (five) and French Open titles (six). Sampras and Federer broke Borg's Wimbledon record and Nadal broke Borg's French Open record but no other player has simultaneously ruled both surfaces the way that Borg did.

Federer's mastery is deservedly lauded but the fact that even a player as gifted, durable and motivated as he is cannot match the multi-surface dominance that Borg accomplished indicates just how much respect and praise that Borg deserves as well.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Brenda Warner's Inspiring Message to Kurt Warner

NFL Network's series of one hour profiles titled "A Football Life" provides a riveting look at some of pro football's most accomplished and revered figures, including Bill Belichick, Al Davis, Mike Ditka, Tom Landry and Walter Payton. The episode about Kurt Warner detailed Warner's amazing football journey from the minor leagues to Super Bowl champion and his equally amazing journey to become a husband/stepfather/father after marrying the former Brenda Carney Meoni and adopting her two children--including son Zach, who sustained a traumatic head injury as an infant that left him blind and brain damaged.

During a rough patch late in Warner's NFL career, Brenda wrote Kurt a letter in Zach's voice. The Warners shared the text of that letter with "A Football Life":

Remember me when you want to give up.
Remember I didn't...

Remember me when you think life is hard.
Remember my life is...

Remember me when you want to hurry through life.
Remember me...slow down.

Love, Zach