My thoughts about the NCAA and Penn State

I’m Canadian; I’ve never even visited Penn State; and I hate football.  Some might think that disqualifies me from having an opinion about the recent sanctions taken by the NCAA against Penn State.  I can understand that.  But also, sometimes, “fresh eyes” and “distance” can yield something useful; it’s in that spirit that I write this.

Today I heard an attempted debate on CBC Radio 1’s The Current, titled Did the NCAA come down hard enough on Penn State, between Buzz Bissinger and Gary R. Roberts.  I say “attempted” debate because within a few minutes of beginning the discussion, Bissinger threw the rulebook of civilized discussion out the window and launched a tirade the likes of which I’ve only ever heard during American political debates.

The positions of the two men are quite clear; the New York Times ran a “debate” of sorts in their Opinion Pages on 16 July that included both men.  Their principal arguments were the same on CBC.

Bissinger called for a “ban on football.”  And he doesn’t mean just at Penn State.  As is evident in his WSJ piece of 8 May, he thinks College football should be banned in its entirety for at least two years.  He writes, in the Times debate, “The argument that the extensive cover-up had nothing to do with football is absurd. Jerry Sandusky was treated the very way he was, as if he were the victim, because he was a member of the Penn State football family. Like the Mafia, it’s a membership for life as long as you don’t snitch on other made members.”  Setting aside his pointless shrill sensationalism, he’s arguing that the culture of college football was a fundamental enabler of Sandusky’s and Paterno’s actions.  Furthermore, since the culture of football is ubiquitous in many American colleges, it stands to reason that similar crimes could very well be going on at other colleges too.  Hence the universal ban.

Roberts, on the other hand, argues that the US criminal court system has yet to consider the allegations.  He calls for calm and dispassion, noting that though the courts may seem to move slowly, they do so for good reason: to ensure that the truth does come out, based on evidence and not spittle-soaked invective.  He also argues that the NCAA has neither the authority nor the mandate to punish Penn State, especially since the sanctions seem to also condemn countless students and faculty who had certainly nothing to do with the actual events, whatever they may turn out to be once the court proceedings have run their course.  This statement by Roberts, from a piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, sums up his view nicely: “The N.C.A.A. is a nonprofit, member organization that exists to regulate intercollegiate athletic competition and facilitate that competition. It is not, and should not become, an organization that exists to enforce legal or moral standards.”

I think both Bissinger and Roberts are wrong.

Nothing good will come from Bissinger’s inflammatory rhetoric.  Mafia?  Really?  I suppose he’s playing on Paterno’s Italian roots.  Ha-ha.  Cuz we all know that all Italians are mafiosi.  Message to Bissinger: stop being such a dick.  But if we try to cleave his Chicken Little rantiness out of his writing we’re left with a key proposition: the culture of football is the root cause of the terrible things that happened at Penn State, and that those things just a symptom of a broad and pervasive mentality that places football above all else.

This is only half-right, which in essence makes it all wrong, because there is no linear cause and effect here.  We’re talking about a massive system, including dozens of colleges, hundreds of faculty and staff, thousands of students, banks, legal firms, television networks, advertisers, merchandizers, fan clubs, and who knows what other groups.  All these elemental groups interact in complex, non-linear, and opaque ways.  No one – not one single person – has an overview of the whole thing.  No one truly understands it.  Furthermore, this gargantuan system has emerged, evolved, grown slowly over more than a century.  Feedback loops – and there must be thousands if not millions of them – have been slowly reinforcing some phenomena and dampening others.  Because no one fully understands the complexity of the system, no one can recognize the feedback loops, so no one can spot the problematic ones.  There is no doubt in my mind that unacceptable behaviours have been going on in College football for a very long time – not because football is somehow prone to it, but because unacceptable behaviours will happen everywhere given enough time.  The terrible things that happened at Penn State are, I think, just more of the same – perhaps worse than any others to date – but still phenomena of a type that has gone on for a long time.  As such, those acts are both causes and effects, because they are participants in feedback loops within the system.

And you can’t fix a bad system by just bashing on one of its elements.  There are ways to fix systems, but they are far, far away from Bissinger’s hysterical proposals.

Roberts, on the other hand, certainly seems the voice of reason in all this.  The rule of law is a keystone of American society.  Vitriol and raw emotion never lead to a good outcome in these matters, because fairness is an essential prerequisite for justice, and fairness requires rationality.

But there’s two things wrong with the application of these principles, in this case.  First, we are talking about the USA here; it’s the land of the “1%,” the country of Citizens United.  It is not entirely obvious to me that legal proceedings involving the multi-billion dollar industry of US College football will lead to a just result.  There is, currently, significant distrust of the American legal system.  Not all of it is warranted, but the distrust is still there.  To place one’s faith so firmly in it, as Roberts does, seems rather disingenuous.

Furthermore, it is unlikely that the judicial system will find anything other than guilt or innocence of a few individuals.  And it seems incredibly unlikely that it will find a real solution that involves investigating, mapping, and analyzing the complex system that is US College football.  Yet without such analysis, and finding instead only the guilt or innocence of a few individuals, it will do absolutely nothing to address the systemic problems that are in play.  Such proceedings are necessary, to be sure, because anyone who willfully does such terrible things and anyone who conspires to protect such individuals needs to pay the price society sets for such things.  Legal proceedings are necessary, but not sufficient.

While Roberts arguments seem to me the lesser of two evils, neither seems truly appropriate to come to a real understanding of the system, and thus find a truly appropriate solution.  The real solution will involve a lot of effort and money and time, it will involve bringing in a diversity of systems experts, and carefully finding out exactly how the system works.  It will involve getting all the stakeholders involved (anonymously, if necessary) to map out how all the elements of the system interact.  It will involve analyzing that map to discover what interventions, gentle nudges to the system, in perhaps unlikely places will bring about the desired changes.

Some of you may think that this is an intractable proposal; there’s just no way to marshall the resources needed to make it happen.  In response, I would ask you to reconsider the alternatives as proposed by Bissinger and Roberts.  Are they really any better?

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2 thoughts on “My thoughts about the NCAA and Penn State

  1. Very interesting take on the Sandusky case, and I would tend to agree with nearly everything you said. Your proposed strategy does seem a tad unrealistic, not very pragmatic – surprising since you’re cut from the engineering cloth – but the right way of going about this nontheless. Great read.

    • While I appreciate the respectfulness of your comment, I would ask you to consider: How is my proposal unrealistic compared to more superficial solutions, when the problem is at root so absolutely devastating to the victims?

      Also, one of the reasons it seems unrealistic is that it’s not common-place, and so would be more difficult to implement. But if we started using real systems thinking more extensively, it would eventually weave its way into the fabric of policy-making, community thinking, and society generally. It would get simpler over time. But if we don’t start on relatively small problems like this (compared to, say, dealing with climate change), it will always seem unrealistic.

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