The NCAA vs. cases of sexual assault

Published 10:58 am Thursday, February 1, 2018

As the fallout for Michigan State continues in response to the Larry Nassar case, another battle is brewing.

It’s a familiar one, one that’s been waged before and it would seem will be fought again to the general surprise of no one.

You see, the NCAA has inserted itself into the fray on the heels of multiple reports that Michigan State administration, coaches, boosters and the like were made aware of Nassar’s horrific crimes as early as 2010, as reported by The All-American and ESPN last week.

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Much like the stories that came out in the past decade with Penn State, Vanderbilt and Baylor (to name just a few), there’s considerable evidence that, at best, officials at MSU did nothing.

At worst, they helped cover Nassar’s crimes up.

Either way, they were complicit in aiding what I’d term to be a terrible, damaging human being.

Cover-ups and scandal in collegiate sports aren’t new. Nassar and Michigan State are but the latest in a long, long list of misdeeds and criminal cases that happen on college campuses and have ties to million, even billion dollar athletic departments. MSU likely won’t be the last one that we hear about this year, though I fervently hope it’s the worst of the lot.

With the NCAA inserting itself by launching an investigation into Michigan State and the purported cover-up to protect Nassar, it could be a reason to stand up an applaud, until you consider what the NCAA has said in relation to other cases of rape and sexual assault involving college athletes and athletic departments.

The governing body of collegiate athletics famously lowered the hammer on Penn State in 2012 following the child sex abuse scandal with former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

The Nittany Lions were given five years probation, a four-year postseason ban, vacating all wins from 1998 to 2011 (112 total wins) which included Big Ten Conference Champion titles in 2005 and 2008, a $60 million dollar fine, and the loss of 40 scholarships over a five year period.

The punishment levied against Penn State was one of the harshest the NCAA had ever given out, setting a tone for any athletic program that found themselves in a similar situation.

At least for a while. Fourteen months after the initial sanctions were handed down, the NCAA revoked all of them with NCAA President Mark Emmert stating that the change wasn’t because the penalties were too severe but because of a good faith effort made by Penn State.

Emails released in conjunction with a lawsuit against the NCAA by Pennslyvania Senator Jake Cormant in 2014 say something different:

“We could try to assert jurisdiction on this issue and may be successful but it’d be a stretch. …I characterized our approach to PSU as a bluff when talking to Mark [Emmert] yesterday afternoon after the call. He basically agreed b/c if we make this an enforcement issue, we may win the immediate battle but lose the war when the COI [Committee on Infractions] has to rule,” former NCAA Vice President of Enforcement Julie Roe wrote.

And another, this one from NCAA Vice President of Academic and Membership Affairs Kevin Lennon, “I know we are banking on the fact the school is so embarrassed they will do anything, but I am not sure about that, and no confidence conference or other members will agree to that. …This will force the jurisdictional issue that we really don’t have a great answer to that one…”

Essentially, the NCAA admitted that they overstepped their bounds with Penn State and, since then, they’ve used that same excuse to stay out of sexual assault cases at various institutions.

In 2016, the NCAA confirmed it wouldn’t open an investigation into Baylor’s scandal involving the football team and former head coach Art Briles because it was an ongoing criminal case.

And if any case was opened, the NCAA would “likely focus on football players receiving preferential treatment when it comes to discipline. That could constitute impermissible benefits depending on the interpretation of NCAA rules, which could lead to sanctions,” according to an article from USA Today.

In June 2017, the NCAA opened an investigation that seems to have made no progress and the direction of their investigation remains a complete mystery. The NCAA didn’t even announce it had opened one, Baylor put the information in a federal court filing to protect the school’s communication’s with the NCAA so that it isn’t available to the women that are suing the school, as well as their attorneys, in their respective court cases.

So, which is it? The NCAA has long played a game of picking and choosing which rules are enforced and with how much severity, but this is about so much more than protecting amateurism in college athletics.

The NCAA wants to have its cake and eat it too, as the saying goes. They freely admit they don’t have the jurisdiction to step into the waters of sexual abuse, assault and other criminal matters but they are doing exactly that.

And I’d argue that they should. The NCAA has a section in their principles of conduct dedicated to the well-being of student-athletes. Isn’t protecting them (or others) from the illegal and often immoral actions of coaches, trainers, teammates, etc part of fostering a healthy, safe environment in which to study and compete?

Unfortunately, we live in a world where victims of all sorts of abuse live in silence, too scared to speak up because someone with power or authority could ruin them. Others speak up and are doubted and ridiculed because they are pointing the finger at those same people.

While the solution should be to educate and foster environments (and individuals) where sexual assault and like crimes are not as commonplace as they are today, we have a long way to go.

Because this isn’t just happening at Penn State or Michigan State or Baylor or Vanderbilt.

On all of those campuses, no one thought it’d ever happen to them. That it would never happen there. Just like people think it won’t happen where they live. But it could. It could just as easily happen in Oxford or Starkville, Baton Rouge or Tuscaloosa.

So what do we do about it? What should the NCAA do about it? Adopting a set of bylaws and procedure for these types of cases is the first step.

With many, many more to come.

The NCAA can’t live in the shadows anymore, hiding behind jurisdiction and a select set of rules that allow them to be hands off.

It’s time to act.

Donica Phifer is managing editor of the EAGLE. She can be reached at