NCAA Uses Tragedy to Launch PR Blitz

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President John F. Kennedy once famously noted that when written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters; one representing danger and the other representing opportunity.

Case in point: this week’s NCAA press conference to unveil the “unprecedented” sanctions against Penn State.   

According to an independent eight-month investigation led by former FBI chief Louis Freeh, the school’s most senior officials conspired in an “active agreement of concealment” to protect the university and its football program from child molestation accusations leveled against former assistant Jerry Sandusky.

Sandusky stood trial last month and was convicted of 45 counts related to the sexual abuse of boys over a 15-year period. The verdict was unequivocal, and Sandusky’s punishment will be rightly deserved.  

But entering this week, the fate of Penn State and its football program remained unclear. No one understood this better than the NCAA, which parlayed the Penn State crisis into its own public relations revitalization program. The goal was to begin reversing criticism of an organization that has become a popular whipping boy of the sports media and fans alike.  

Historian Taylor Branch’s scathing Atlantic Magazine article, “The Shame of College Sports,” published in October, crystallized the disgust over what can only be considered a broken culture at the college level. In his 14,000-word assault, Branch argued that the current NCAA system puts profit ahead of the well-being of so-called student-athletes and that the exploitation of these young men’s skills and fame had “an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.”

The Branch article garnered national attention and fanned a fiery debate over whether college athletes should be paid for their services. On the pages of newspapers and on talk shows around the country, college players were the casualties of the NCAA’s obstinate, archaic rules. While the NCAA rushed out a series of surrogates to help polish its tarnished image, the damage had been done.

But to say the Branch article and others like it were the extent of the NCAA’s problems is like suggesting that the oil and gas industry’s only adversary is the New York Times editorial board.

NCAA’s bigger issue is that its deficiencies are not media creations. Over the last few years, the NCAA unsuccessfully managed a string of high-profile controversies, including the stripping of Reggie Bush’s Heisman, “Tattoogate” at Ohio State, and the tawdry booster scandal at the University of Miami. Importantly, these scandals represented failures of an inadequate system, not only of the NCAA’s PR machine.

As the criticisms began to mount, the NCAA shifted into full damage-control mode and apparently has adopted a new approach. As Don Draper told the executives from Madison Square Garden in an episode of Mad Men, “if you don't like what is being said, then change the conversation.”

Enter the Penn State scandal.

I have no doubt that NCAA officials abhorred the actions of Jerry Sandusky and the Freeh report’s conclusions that Penn State’s leaders showed a “total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims.”

But a crisis often provides a venue for opportunity, particularly for agenda-driven detractors. All the proof you need is the saintly performance NCAA President Mark Emmert staged at Monday’s press conference.

Over and over again, Emmert played the role of healer-in-chief (sorry, President Obama). Emmert emphasized the “very, very serious” and “unprecedented” sanctions, while reassuring critics that the NCAA was taking action against the grave dangers posed by “hero worship and winning at all costs.” Message: We got the bad guys and we made them pay.

Stripping coach Joe Paterno of his wins record seemed apt; but the NCAA was serving the angry public revenge, not justice. It is the only explanation for the $60 million fine Penn State will pay, even though, despite the tragedy of senior officials’ actions, they violated no NCAA bylaws.

Penn State rightly calculated – and the NCAA, no doubt, understood this – that it had to simply take its medicine. Any challenge to the sanctions and financial penalties would only serve to exacerbate, not stem, the university’s daunting reputation reclamation project that lay ahead.

Make no mistake, this was a simple calculation for the NCAA. They finally found someone it could go after that is even more unpopular than itself. It was the PR equivalent of Penn State scheduling Indiana State to open the 2011 football season. While the Lions' 41-7 win looked impressive and made their fans happy, it did not exactly mean they were a national powerhouse. 

The NCAA will be well-served to remember, though, that in every crisis there is also danger. And the dangers associated with the NCAA’s most recent PR stunt are many.

The fact remains that the NCAA’s punishment of Penn State did little to change the existing college sports landscape. In fact, Emmert asserted that the Penn State situation was a “very distinct and very unique circumstance.” In addition, the Penn State sanctions failed to improve its procedures for handling future infractions of this nature.

By taking a tough stand against an easy target, the NCAA is opting for a short-term shift in the conversation, while ignoring the real source of its problems, ones that cannot be addressed solely with public relations showmanship. If Emmert wants to avoid being cast a villain in the future, the only solution is a fundamental change in the sports culture on campuses beyond Penn State. 

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