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Penn State needed to be punished, but lack of due process by NCAA is troubling

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I purposely waited an extra day to write this because I wanted to sort through the wreckage -- intended and unintended -- of the NCAA's decision to level unprecedented (damn, that word has been used a lot) sanctions against the football program at Penn State.

After reading everything I could and talking to a lot of people at different levels of college athletics, I arrived at a most uncomfortable and unsatisfying position:

I have no quarrel with the penalties leveled against Penn State. The crimes that took place there are so heinous in nature that one man (Jerry Sandusky) is in jail, one man's legacy (Joe Paterno) is forever obliterated and several others -- including former president Graham Spanier -- will never again work in higher education.

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Whether or not Pennsylvania State University ever wins another football game is inconsequential. When the context is child abuse, sports simply do not matter.

Having said all that, I am not at all comfortable about the process that led to Monday morning's press conference by NCAA President Mark Emmert.

Dr. Emmert's position was that the problems at Penn State were so deeply rooted in the "hero worship" culture that extraordinary measures needed to be taken. Emmert told The New York Times that after the results of the Freeh Report, which outlined a cover-up of Sandusky's activities dating back to 1998, were accepted by Penn State, Emmert and his senior staff took about 10 days to put these sanctions together, confer with the NCAA's presidential leadership and announce them.

In his press conference, Dr. Emmert laid out his position that the NCAA had a role to play in the Penn State case despite the fact that no rules concerning competitive balance were broken. This, said Emmert, was an issue of a football culture that had grown out of control.

Said Emmert: "No price the NCAA can levy will repair the grievous damage inflicted by Jerry Sandusky on his victims. However, we can make clear that the culture, actions and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in collegiate athletics."

No argument here. He is absolutely right.

Oregon State president Ed Ray, the chair of the NCAA's executive committee said "We needed to act, and we needed to act quickly and effectively."

But 10 days?

I know the NCAA enforcement process gets criticized for working at a snail's pace and delivering inconsistent rulings.

But 10 days?

I know the NCAA gets criticized for being out of touch and sitting on the sidelines while top level of college football grows richer and more distant from its influence with each new television contract.

But 10 days?

To be fair, Emmert sent a letter to Penn State on Nov. 17 saying that the NCAA could get involved in this case. But to my knowledge there was no investigative work done on this case until the Freeh Report was released on July 12.

Look. I get it. In the past 16 months college football has been an absolute train wreck: Jim Tressel, Butch Davis, another Miami scandal, Jerry Sandusky, Bobby Petrino. People have cried out that somebody needs to step in and put the fear of God into these people because otherwise they are never going to get it. The risk/reward for bad behavior has gotten too out of balance.

The Penn State scandal happened because protecting a brand (Penn State football) and protecting a legacy (Joe Paterno) became more important than any other consideration, like protecting innocent children. That simply cannot happen at an educational institution.

But in our haste to make things right, we cannot forget about due process. Emmert's position is that the Freeh Report established the facts of this case. And once Penn State signed off on the report and answered a few additional questions, the NCAA had everything it needed to act.

"There was no compelling reason to delay the process," Emmert said.

How about this? The Freeh Report is just that, a report. It is going to be challenged in a court of law. What if that court finds the report is flawed? I tend to believe that the former director of the FBI probably got it right. But wouldn't it have made more sense to let the NCAA investigators do their work, let the legal process play out, and then determine if such sanctions were warranted?

I understand the counter argument to that. This case was too important, too tragic, too raw to be left to the normal, flawed, NCAA enforcement process. Emmert needed to assert this authority, like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, to address a clear case of wrongdoing with swift and certain punishment. In doing so he would put everybody else on notice in a culture that occasionally needs to get taken to the woodshed. That's a good thing, right?

But that's the issue. Mark Emmert is not Roger Goodell. Goodell is the commissioner of a professional league, hired by owners, and given virtually unlimited powers to police that league.

Emmert, a very smart man for whom I have a great deal of respect, is the president of a voluntary association of universities. Yes, the idea that these are still amateur sports is a horse that left the barn a long time ago. Feel free to insert your joke here.

Still, the powers of the president are limited by the governance structure of the NCAA. And that can be frustrating as hell. Emmert felt he was operating within that governance structure when he acted in the Penn State case. I'm not comfortable that he did.

My CBS colleague Tim Brando has long called for a commissioner of college football with broad powers to protect the good of the sport. If that's what the sport needs, then the presidents need to hire a commissioner and make it clear up front what his powers will be.

I know that agreeing with the outcome but disagreeing with the process is a hard case to make. In the age of Twitter people don't want to be bothered by process. They want the right result and they want it now. People at Penn State did bad things. They need to be punished. Process is messy. We don't like messy.

Emmert insists that the Penn State case was unique and called for this unprecedented (there's that word again) approach.

"We don't see this opening a Pandora's box at all," he said. "This was a very distinct and very unique set of circumstances."

We'll see. Former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan once told me that every now and then college athletics gets overheated and needs to have some cold water thrown on it. I'll take Emmert at his word that this was his way of dousing the sport and (hopefully) hitting the reset button.

But my experience is that once power like this is exercised, it's hard not to use it again.

If I was the University of Miami I'd be a little nervous right now.

The Tony Barnhart Show begins Aug. 28 on The CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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