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NCAA falls under even more scrutiny

| Saturday, Aug. 18, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
NCAA President Mark Emmert delivers his State of the Association speech during the NCAA's annual convention on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2012, in Indianapolis. Associated Press

Charges of academic fraud at North Carolina may ultimately cast more of a searing light on the NCAA than the school where the alleged wrongdoing occurred.

And Penn State fans aren't the only ones waiting to see if NCAA president Mark Emmert takes action following a recent show of muscle in University Park that left him open to charges of hypocrisy.

“The NCAA has conducted investigations and imposed penalties in similar cases of academic fraud, so I find it curious that the NCAA decides not to intercede in this instance,” said Michael Buckner, a South Florida-based attorney whose law firm represents colleges and individuals in NCAA cases.

Emmert has not indicated whether his organization will discipline North Carolina despite charges that athletes took no-show classes over a five-year period — one that overlapped with an NCAA investigation of the school for academic impropriety.

Yahoo columnist Pat Forde wrote last week that the NCAA has to do more than just show it can “hit a bloated target at close range,” his characterization of the punishment Emmert meted out at Penn State for the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Buckner wondered how the NCAA could exceed its jurisdiction with a criminal matter at Penn State but allow North Carolina to handle a widespread cheating scandal internally.

NCAA brass did not return a phone message late last week seeking comment.

“It goes back to my original concern and complaint at how the NCAA treated Penn State, that now it's going to be up to the judgment of Emmert to decide (whether an issue) violates what he calls the core NCAA principles of morality, honesty, sportsmanship and ethics,” Buckner said. “I don't think the membership appointed Emmert dictator or, even a lesser term, the commissioner of the NCAA.”

Emmert, with the backing of an executive board composed of college presidents and chancellors, levied unprecedented sanctions against Penn State for what he called a football culture run amok. The NCAA used the Penn State-commissioned Freeh Report as the basis for sanctions that included a $60 million fine and a loss of football scholarships.

Cedric Dempsey, a former executive director of the NCAA, said he didn't have a problem with the punishment because of the heinous crimes committed by Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, while Sandusky still had access to Penn State facilities.

Dempsey did have concerns, however, with how the NCAA arrived at that punishment.

The executive branch usurped the judicial branch, even though the two are supposed to have equal power alongside the legislative branch. The NCAA has been criticized in the past for not acting quickly or boldly enough to discipline schools that run afoul of the rules, but Emmert achieved both in punishing Penn State.

“I do think, at times, there needs to be a process that expedites decision-making a little bit more, and I think they're working on that right now,” said Dempsey, the NCAA's executive director from 1994-2003. “At the same time, I hope we don't disrupt what has been a reasonably effective process over the years except for the delay and length of time it takes sometimes in decision-making. I'd hate to see us lose the judiciary aspect of the association.”

The lack of due process afforded to Penn State by the NCAA has resulted in a disconnect between a significant segment of alumni and leadership that wants the embattled school to move forward. The board of trustees has stood behind university president Rodney Erickson despite a few of its members' opposition to the sanctions to which Erickson consented.

One of the more bellicose voices in standing up to the NCAA belongs, coincidentally, to a Pitt graduate who was unsuccessfully recruited by former Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno in the late 1960s.

Ralph Cindrich, a Carnegie-based lawyer and NFL agent, said the sanctions are unlawful and will have negative repercussions for the state.

“This school and the people didn't deserve it, and to talk the way (the NCAA does) about the school and the program to me is just too far from the truth and reality of what goes on,” Cindrich said. “The fraud that (the NCAA perpetuates) of amateurism is just astounding to me.”

Cindrich is examining ways he can get the NCAA into court, and he said he has talked to high-profile Penn State alumni in the area about legal action.

“I've never seen anything as wrong as this,” Cindrich said, “and that's what bothers me.”

ESPN college football analyst Todd Blackledge said the NCAA raised the stakes when it punished Penn State — as well as expectations for disciplining schools that commit major rules violations.

“I think everybody's going to be looking at everything that comes after that because what the NCAA chose to do in the case of Penn State was clearly unprecedented, and there were some of us that would think it was probably extreme,” said Blackledge, a former Penn State quarterback. “I think there will be a lot of people that will be paying attention to what the NCAA does from here on out.”

Scott Brown is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com.

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