Ray Rice, Penn State and the fickleness of punishment in the world of sports [Letter]

September 18, 2014

On Monday September 8, two off-field events in the world of sports garnered more attention than any competition on the field: the Baltimore Ravens released Ray Rice, whom the NFL suspended indefinitely; and the NCAA lifted its postseason and scholarship ban on Penn State University's football team. These two events teach an important lesson about the fine line of acceptability in the very public world of professional and collegiate football.

Looking first at the NFL, on Monday TMZ released a full video from inside the elevator of Mr. Rice punching his then-fiancée in the face. While another security camera video from outside the elevator has been publicly available for some time, the league and the Ravens' front office claim that they first saw this "new" video that Monday. This would suggest that both parties wanted the public to believe that TMZ either has better investigators or more sway with the video's owner, the police, or Mr. Rice's attorney, because of its ability to obtain a video that the NFL claimed was unavailable.

When given the outline of the events this summer, the NFL suspended Mr. Rice for two games. To put that in perspective, the league's mandatory first penalty for a drug offense is a four game suspension. Then, once the video became public, the league suspended Mr. Rice indefinitely, even risking violating its own collective bargaining agreement for punishing a player twice for the same incident. The key difference appears to be the publicity of the video. Thus, the NFL's message to players seems to be they can get away with a slap on the wrist for their crimes — unless, of course, they are caught on video.

Moving to the NCAA, there is no need to rehash the full extent of the Jerry Sandusky sexual assault scandal and the horrors that took place on campus that led the NCAA to ban Penn State from postseason play for four years and to slash available scholarships. Now, two years into the penalty, the NCAA has lifted these sanctions. It acted based on the recommendation of former steroid busting senator George Mitchell who claims Penn State has made many of the suggested changes from the Freeh Report that implicated the university and employees for failing to act appropriately. With the removal of the sanctions, Penn State's football program will have suffered substantially similar consequences to that of Ohio State. For reference, Ohio State was not involved in a scandal that comes close to matching that of Penn State. Instead, some of the football players got free tattoos and lied about them during the investigation. Therefore, the lesson to be learned is that the NCAA cares more about how schools comply with NCAA recommendations when it breaks rules than the rules themselves.

So the lesson appears to be that the more public and the more recent an incident is, the worse it is. This is a dangerous notion that may have drastic consequences unless serious leadership changes are made.

Jeremy R. Abrams

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