Foolish Caving-In to a Bully

Why Penn State should have fought the NCAA

Posted Jul 27, 2012

As a boy growing up with a shyness problem, I sometimes found myself picked on by bullies. My natural inclination was to passively take the abuse, but at some point I figured out that the only way to get a bully to back off was to take a stand, whether it was to engage him in a fight, seek help from others, or to otherwise let him know that there was a potential cost if he continued his course of action. This is a lesson that I have had to call on at various points in my life, most recently as a college professor, when standing up to a corrupt and abusive Dean. Unfortunately for Pennsylvania State University, its President, Rod Erickson, apparently never learned this lesson, as reflected in his abject caving in to NCAA president Mark Emmert’s draconian penalties, in the face of an empty (and legally questionable) threat to shut down the university’s football program altogether.

I know (well, have been in the same room as) Emmert; he was the provost and chancellor at the University of Connecticut during part of my time there. I will always be grateful to him for firing the bullying Dean mentioned above, but I also know that he has his limitations. Although apparently successful as the chancellor at LSU (where he brought in Nick Saban as football coach), he was less successful during his six years at the helm of his alma mater the University of Washington (where he was the second-highest paid college president in the country). Part of this was due to his much-criticized role in the hiring and then overly delayed firing of the dramatically unsuccessful football coach Ty Willingham. However, a friend of mine who was a high administrator at UW told me that the president’s office in Seattle during Emmert’s reign was in a state of considerable turmoil, and that few people inside the university shed tears when he headed off to Indianapolis to take over the NCAA.

Emmert’s hiring at the NCAA in 2010 was somewhat controversial, given that college athletics was not a field where he was known to have significant interests or experience (other than mixed success in hiring of coaches). In line with his political correctness tendencies at UW (where two of his initiatives were to make college more affordable for poor students, and to create greater awareness of climate change and energy conservation), Emmert came into his new job with a commitment to make college athletics (especially football) more ethically responsible, in part by creating fewer incentives for poor students to be corrupted by boosters by giving them cash stipends as part of their scholarship package. Emmert has been notably unsuccessful in implementing these policies, or in changing the culture of the NCAA, and there have been calls for his termination. It has even been rumored that he was contemplating a return (in an expanded role) to LSU, although Emmert has denied those rumors.

Given Emmert’s need to silence critics both within and outside the NCAA, the Penn State scandal provided him with a golden opportunity to score a big win on the ethics front. Now he can wrap himself in the twin flags of moral purity (by showing that the NCAA is not just concerned about sports recruiting) and the fight against sexual abuse of children (by turning the $16 million fine levied against Penn State to relevant charities). I am not cynical enough to suggest that career salvage was the major reason why Emmert took the stance that he did, but the consequence of the Penn State penalties is that he can now leave on his own timetable when, inevitably, he takes on another university presidency.

What I am reflecting in these pages is the opinion that the NCAA over-stepped its bounds, both in seeing the Sandusky scandal as part of its agenda and in levying penalties I consider grossly excessive: four year ban on postseason play, four year loss of 40 scholarships, $16 million fine and allowing current athletes to be recruited for immediate play by other schools and coaches (such as the multiply sanctioned coach at ethically challenged USC). Lest anyone think I am an apologist for Joe Paterno, Penn State or Jerry Sandusky, I suggest they read my earlier blog post where I directed quite harsh criticism at all three. My focus here, however, is not on whether Penn State is a sterling institution, but on whether its President, Rod Erickson, demonstrated competence or incompetence in the way he handled the situation he was in when Emmert, or his associates, threatened the so-called “death penalty” unless (not much) less harsh penalties were accepted.

I am not a lawyer, but use of a threatened consequence in order to coerce a particular behavior comes close to the legal definition of extortion (popularly known as blackmail). In various civil and criminal arenas, it is considered an illegal and punishable behavior. One example is “constructed resignation,” where someone is told they will be fired if they do not quit (this is grounds for a successful wrongful termination suit). The best known example is a threat to divulge embarrassing information if payment is not made (this is a felony, punishable by significant jail time). A form that I am very familiar with in my work as a psychological consultant in murder cases, is what might be termed a “constructed confession” where an interrogator tells a suspect “if you don’t confess we will seek the death penalty” or (in one notorious case) “if you don’t confess, your wife will be put in jail and you will lose custody of your child.” Such a threat is, of course, improper (it will get a confession thrown out) and in fact is the main reason why police are generally opposed to recording of interrogations (or even when they are recorded, turning on the tape after the threat is made) in order to keep such improper tactics secret. 

The competent way to deal with extortion is to remove yourself from the situation (by saying “this conversation is over”), by consulting with others (“I need to confer with my attorney [or board]”) or by calling the extorter’s bluff (“Be prepared for a fight, because I will never accept what you are asking me to do”). A wise and experienced person knows how to deal with a bully, but Rod Erickson (who was a long-time administrator at Penn State but was not generally considered presidential material) apparently lacked those skills. It has since come out that he did not even have the sense to confer with the university’s trustees, before caving in to “big bully” Mark Emmert. It is very likely, in my opinion, that had Erickson and Penn State said to Emmert “you are grossly out of line, and we will fight” that the NCAA would have backed off and a compromise would have been worked out that would have involved penalties of a much less severe nature.

Standing up to bullies requires wisdom but it also requires courage. In its dealing with Joe Paterno (who used his near mythic standing with alumni to exhibit some bullying tendencies of his own) the Penn State Board and its former president, Graham Spanier, exhibited neither. In an ironic twist, the same incompetence that resulted in the Sandusky fiasco is also being exhibited today in the university’s dealings with the NCAA. In an earlier blog post, I noted that presidents of organizations, businesses and countries are paid not to make the best decision but to have the sense to avoid making the worst (i.e., most catastrophic) decision. In my opinion, Penn State’s president failed that test.

Copyright Stephen Greenspan