Big Ten has a warning for Penn State

By now you probably have read the statement from the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors on Penn State. If not, go ahead and check it out from our most recent blog entry.

Does your head hurt? Can't blame you. That's the kind of overly wordy, point-obfuscating mess that only a team of lawyers and academic head honchos could cobble together.

Boil it down to the essence, though, and it's pretty significant. Big Ten leadership has been fairly quiet about the Penn State sex-abuse scandal to this point, with its most significant action so far being the stripping of Joe Paterno's name off the football championship trophy. With this statement, the conference presidents and chancellors are firing a warning shot, telling Penn State that the league may "impose sanctions, corrective or other disciplinary measures" whether the NCAA chooses to do so or not.

The league also wants its own lawyers involved in any NCAA or school-directed review. Usually, a conference brings its legal team to the aid of member schools under fire from the NCAA. (Remember how hard Jim Delany fought for Ohio State around this time last year? Or the league's support for Michigan with the practice-time violations?). Here it sounds like the Big Ten is putting the attorneys on the other side of the bench.

The big question is, of course, what type of sanctions the Big Ten is willing to impose on Penn State if it doesn't like the results of these investigations. Rumors have circulated that at least a few league schools were so angry and disgusted by the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal that they lobbied to kick Penn State out of the Big Ten altogether, and the Nittany Lions don't have the kind of history with the league that would make that impossible. I still very seriously doubt that would ever happen, since the conference just put so much work into getting to 12 teams and would likely have to deal with all kinds of thorny legal issues to expel a school. Besides, Penn State has taken steps to clean house by firing its president, athletic director and Paterno. The school needs to keep cutting ties to those who were culpable.

Another really interesting part of the statement reads that the council believes there is "sufficient information to raise significant concerns as to whether a concentration of power in a single individual or program may have threatened or eroded institutional control of intercollegiate athletics at Penn State." In other words, as many have said and written, Paterno was too powerful for the school's own good. (Naturally, no one from the Big Ten was complaining about this when the league was naming awards for him this offseason, but better late than never).

That leads into the council's directive "to initiate an immediate review of the fundamental issues and systems affecting intercollegiate athletics, including the serious issues relating to the institutional control of athletics." The goal is to come up with a set of "stress tests" to insure "(a) to insure that each member is responsible and accountable to the collective membership of the Conference for the control and operation of its intercollegiate athletics programs as well as (b) to prevent anyone, whether a trustee, administrator, faculty member, athletic director, coach, booster or otherwise, from eroding the effectiveness of an institution’s practices and procedures designed to protect the institution’s integrity and control over its intercollegiate athletic programs." (Lawyered!)

To which I say: Good luck with that. Look, there are serious problems with the deification of coaches and the undue amount of influence sports have over our places of higher learning. I wrote about this very thing a couple of weeks ago while warning Ohio State to be wary of the "cult of coach" with Urban Meyer. It's an issue that's ripe for review.

But the Big Ten is going to come up with "standards, stress tests and other criteria" to prevent this from happening by next spring? Right. Just as soon as the Big Ten Network millions roll in and coaches get their bowl bonuses cashed before driving their comp cars to spring practice. The genie isn't just out of the bottle; the bottle is smashed into a million pieces. Plus, there isn't likely to be a situation again quite like Paterno's, where a guy coaches for nearly half a century at a remote campus, basically building the program and much of the university himself.

Still, it can't hurt for the Big Ten -- and all leagues and schools -- to do this kind of soul-searching after one of the worst years ever in college sports. Everyone involved should do whatever it takes to make sure this kind of thing never happens again. Even if that means a league punishing one of its own.