Professor Timothy Davis says NCAA attempts to limit consequences on those who weren’t responsible for Penn State officials’ actions

Photo of Professor Tim Davis

Professor Tim Davis is one the country’s best known sports law scholars.

The National College Athletic Association announced its actions on Monday against Penn State University’s revered football program in response to the recent child sex abuse scandal. The penalties include fines of $60 million and the nullifying of the team’s victories for the past 14 seasons as well as a post-season bowl game ban and a reduction in player scholarships.

Wake Forest Law Professor Timothy Davis is one the country’s best known sports law scholars and a member of the Board of Advisors for the National Sports Law Institute.

Davis says ordinarily in analyzing the fairness of sanctions imposed by the NCAA, a comparison is made to sanctions imposed against institutions that committed similar violations. 

“Here, the nature of the violations was atypical,” he said.  “In previous cases, findings of lack of institutional control and unethical conduct are a consequence of violations of specific rules such as an agent giving money to student-athletes with the complicity of a coach. In this case, the NCAA found that Penn State committed violations of its fundamental principles without the attendant violations of a bylaw relating to matters such as the prohibition against extra benefits or academic fraud.” 

News reports are calling the punishment of Penn State officials who were accused of not taking action after being alerted to child sex abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky unprecedented for its swiftness and breadth. The scandal tainted former coach Joe Paterno and led to his firing last year along with other top school officials.

Davis says the NCAA penalties reflect the egregious nature of the actions engaged in by Penn State officials in response to the crimes committed by Sandusky. 

“The sanctions also reflect the primacy of the principles of institutional control (i.e., institutions through their officials are held responsible for the conduct of their intercollegiate athletics programs) and ethical conduct,” Davis explains.  “The impact of the sanctions is likely to be felt by Penn State for some time into the future.  The post-season ban coupled with the ability of football players to freely transfer and the limits on scholarships will significantly erode the competitiveness of the football program over the next several years.  Also, the NCAA’s action is likely to impact how those within and outside of Penn State view the university.”

In a scathing rebuke of Penn State administrators, NCAA President Mark Emmert said the school had put “hero worship and winning at all costs” ahead of integrity, honesty and responsibility, according to Reuters. Until Monday, Paterno had held the record for victories among U.S. college football coaches.

Reuters also reported The Big Ten Conference of college sports announced Penn State would forfeit its share of revenues for bowl games organized by the league, and the estimated $13 million would instead be donated to charities devoted to the protection of children.

Davis said the precedential effect of the NCAA’s actions against Penn State is uncertain. 

“Although Mark Emmert and Edward Ray emphasized the unique nature of the events that led to the action taken by the NCAA, I would not rule out efforts in the future to pressure the NCAA to take action, for example, in cases involving a pattern of criminal or violent conduct perhaps committed by athletes,”  he said.  “Finally, Mark Emmert identified changing the athletic culture at Penn State as a primary goal of the NCAA’s penalties and corrective actions.  Whether the wide-ranging penalties will impact athletic cultures at institutions beyond Penn State is also wrought with uncertainty.”