Penn State, Ray Rice and Marketing Morality

In light of the Ray Rice incident and high-profile allegations of assaults against women involving college athletes, I’ve had multiple conversations lately with friends about the problem of domestic violence in sports. On the subject of college-level athletes, the discussions almost always include some mention of the NCAA potentially instituting severe, uniform penalties that span all of its member schools for such offenses.

It’s really just a targeted version of the notion that the NCAA or conferences should take disciplinary matters out of schools’ hands to avoid a “race to the bottom” on personal conduct. And it sounds like a nice solution in theory. Then the NCAA does something like drop its sanctions against Penn State to remind you just badly it sucks at that kind of thing.

When the NCAA dropped the hammer on Happy Valley in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, it purportedly did so to make an example of a culture that so worshiped football that it enabled a child molester who used his position as a coach to terrorize young boys. Two years later, the NCAA did exactly what its organizational brain required of it. Because Penn St. measured up to some notion of “improvement” in the eyes of morality-gun-for-hire George Mitchell — a former U.S. senator, dontcha know — the Association essentially paroled the football program, terminating its sanctions ahead of schedule. (Read all about it on a Penn State’s website Progress.)

Stewart Mandel of FOX Sports asks the money question: What did the NCAA actually accomplish? Mark Emmert got a chance to score some PR points with his public grandstanding. The Nittany Lions stayed home from a couple bowls and forked over some major coin. But if the purpose was to admonish the community for deifying a coach and allowing football to drive the bus?

Clearly, lessons were learned in State College.

This is what happens when you ask an entrenched regulatory bureaucracy to expand beyond the scope of its stated purpose. It treats the task of eradicating heinous institutional rot as a check-the-box exercise because making sure that the right boxes are checked is embedded in its DNA.

It’s no different than expecting that the NFL will get it right when it comes to taking a stand against domestic violence. This is an organization whose fundamental purpose is to oversee a football league. It leads to bizarre equivocation between testing positive for Adderall and beating the tar out of your wife.

Unfortunately, this comes down to our desire to feel comfortable with the people who entertain us. Buffoons like Roger Goodell and Mark Emmert prey on that impulse, cynically selling virtue by overstepping their bounds to keep butts in the seats and eyes on the screens.

Frankly, the best thing we can do is tell them to mind their own business. Save the serious shit for the cops. Your energy reserved is best spent on the people who make and enforce real laws, not con men trying to keep your dollars flowing to their bosses’ pockets.