No one is going to accept excuses again, so there better be none. Who to call? What to report? Who to trust? What’s my responsibility?
Athletics departments at colleges and universities have turned introspective in the year since former Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was first arrested for child sex abuse.
There is a coast-to-coast mandate, and it is as simple as this: “You see it, you own it.”
It is a slogan Greg McGarity, athletics director at Georgia, first saw used by The Walt Disney Co. As McGarity understood it, the slogan was a prod for all employees regardless of rank to pick up trash on the company’s grounds if they saw it. McGarity adopted the slogan for Georgia when it came to NCAA rules compliance, but now the slogan is used in case something much more sinister than a hot dog wrapper is floating around.
“People are more alert, people are asking more questions, people are probably paranoid, somewhat, that those type situations of what happened at Penn State don’t arise at their institutions,” he said.
“There is the unknown out there, and that’s the scary thing. What we’re saying now is if something doesn’t look right, bring it up. We have an obligation.”
McGarity paused for a moment and seemed to speak for athletics directors across the country. “It shakes you up and causes you to reevaluate everything.”
McGarity and his peers in the NCAA membership have been compelled to review their policies and practices in the wake of the Penn State scandal, not only to assess their areas of strength and vulnerability, but also to adjust to a shifted NCAA enforcement landscape.
The Freeh Report, which detailed the failings of Penn State’s bureaucracy, has become McGarity’s newest teaching manual, all 267 pages of it. McGarity and his senior staff came up with 16 points of action off the Freeh Report to use in re-examining the policies of the Georgia athletics department.
Morgan Burke, athletics director at Purdue, said one of the first steps at his school in the wake of Penn State was educating staff more thoroughly on the Clery Act, which requires that colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs keep and disclose information about crime on and near their campuses. Burke said university attorneys have made it clear to athletics staff that they have a legal obligation to report any suspicious activity.
In addition, Purdue has looked at how it operates sports camps for youth and has expanded the checking of state and national sex offender’s registries for any coaches and workers who come in contact with kids. Volunteers are subjected to the same scrutiny as coaches, Burke said.
There also was a review of the use of facilities by non-athletic staff, Burke said. After Sandusky left the Penn State football coaching staff, he retained access to the school’s facilities, where he committed some of his crimes. “We’re a lifeguard,” Burke said. “Anybody who comes into our domain, either as a guest, fan, student-athlete, camper, we need to be sure that person leaves in as good a shape, if not better, as they came to us.”
McGarity said passenger manifests for official university travel are now examined at Georgia. In the Sandusky trial it was revealed the former coach took one of the children he abused to a Penn State bowl game.
At the University of Utah, athletics director Chris Hill said, “You do wonder who you can trust and who you can’t, so you have to be vigilant.
“Any group that has authority over young people are now in a different pool than we were 10 years ago. We’re a group that has to take special care. This embarrasses us all.”
Meanwhile, the penalties Penn State has faced for its inaction related to Sandusky have created an uneasiness, athletics administrators say, about the NCAA’s abrupt departure from its enforcement process. The NCAA’s board of directors and President Mark Emmert imposed a $60 million fine on Penn State and four-year ban from the football postseason without going through a typical NCAA investigation and hearing process.
Emmert has cited the unprecedented nature of the Penn State case in explaining the reasons the NCAA bypassed its normal enforcement process. Asked if the NCAA would bypass its Committee on Infractions in future cases and impose penalties without a hearing, Erik Christianson, the NCAA’s director of public and media relations, said, “We are not speculating on potential future situations.”
Tom Yeager, commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association and a former member of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, objected to the heavy hand on Penn State without due process.
“I think there was a process in place that has been developed over decades by some of the brightest legal minds in our institutions and by outside consultants,” Yeager said. “It has withstood all kinds of outside legal challenges. I’m one that felt we had processes in place and people in place to treat this.”
“This is the old slippery slope. I think it raises the question about what’s next. OK, this is a path you are going down and you have some other cases out there right now.”
Jo Potuto, faculty athletics representative at the University of Nebraska, a constitutional law professor and former nine-year member of the Committee on Infractions, said the NCAA’s decision was “ill-advised.”
However, Potuto said, Penn State has no specific rights of due process under law because it has joined “a club” and it has agreed to adhere to the NCAA’s rulings and findings. Penn State is not owed the typical path of jurisprudence that comes with the legal system, she said.
Potuto also noted that the public clamored for a response from the NCAA. “It was a hard place for the NCAA to be,” she said. “People would have said, ‘If you can’t do this, what are you good for?’ ”
Utah’s Hill said he is not worried that this is going to be a routine course of action for the NCAA. But he said he worried about the NCAA “being the lead dog” or executioner of Penn State, rather than an entity applying pressure on the school to correct its missteps.
“This is not anybody disagreeing with the severity of the punishment,” said Georgia’s McGarity, “but there is a general concern that this opens the door to the unknown.”
Gene Marsh, who represented Penn State in the case to the NCAA, said he raised the issues of due process throughout the NCAA’s deliberations on sanctions. He said it was never on the table that Penn State would go before the Committee on Infractions and have a hearing.
“Given the amount of discussion that has occurred regarding this process and the objections, it would not surprise me that 10 years from now people will look back and Penn State will be the only case ever handled that way,” Marsh said. “It is kind of on (the NCAA) to decide whether they want to do this again.”
Universities and their athletics directors are busy constructing firewalls to make sure the NCAA does not have another case like Penn State, but no amount of fireproofing will offer guarantees.
An investigation that came to light last week at the University of Iowa offers another example of how difficult it is to spot illegal behavior. According to documents obtained by the Iowa City Press-Citizen newspaper, Peter Gray, an associate director of athletic student services and director of academic advising and counseling, quit his job last week amid allegations of a pattern of sexual harassment that began in the 1990s.
“We have aberrant behavior in society,” said Purdue’s Burke. “Does that mean you lose trust in everybody? Is there a way that you put so many locks on a door that it absolutely protects you?
“Don’t delude yourself. If you think a set of policies and procedures can supersede the core values and judgment of individuals, you’re kidding yourself. You shouldn’t be sloppy, you should lock the doors to the weight room and make sure somebody doesn’t walk in and hurt themselves, but at the end of the day you have to hire good people, and when people run amok, you have to take action.”