NCAA’s New Mantra: IIFIF


The shocking revelation last week that the NCAA “bluffed” Penn State into accepting sanctions the NCAA knew it didn’t have the authority to impose, demonstrates (a) that the sports organization operates in a blithely immoral manner; and (b) that the Penn State board that was seated in 2011-2012 is guilty of supreme naivety and should be forced to resign (or ousted) by the newly-elected Pennsylvania governor for breach of their collective fiduciary responsibilities.

In addition, Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane should waste no time in prosecuting the NCAA for a host of criminal offenses committed in carrying out this despicable deception against a Pennsylvania public institution, which cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

I have long maintained – in blog posts, in public speeches, in media interviews, and in my most recent book – that what happened in the infamous Jerry Sandusky case was a criminal matter, not an NCAA infraction that warranted NCAA intervention of any kind. The criminal justice system worked and Sandusky is behind bars, probably for life. Remarkably, the secret internal emails openly revealed that the NCAA itself questioned its own authority to take any action in the Sandusky matter. But the NCAA nabobs did it anyway, actually gloating internally while calling it “a bluff" in talking to the NCAA head honcho, Mark Emmert. And an inept and gullible PSU board fell for it. Implicit in reading between the lines is the sad realization that if Penn State had put up any resistance at all, which it was entitled to do, rather than imposing the so-called “death penalty” that the NCAA had threatened, the sports authority would have folded like a cheap suit.

And had there been anyone at Penn State with even the whiff of a backbone, rather than the feckless Rodney Erickson and his mindless sycophants, there might have been a very different outcome, indeed. Out of a board of 32 persons – many leading business executives – not one had the nerve to open his or her mouth and question why the board was so willing to fall under the NCAA’s axe. Or why they were agreeing to sanctions for what was clearly not an NCAA enforcement issue.

One NCAA executive, who used to be in charge of enforcement, wrote to a colleague: “I characterized our approach to PSU as a bluff when talking to Mark (Emmert, NCAA president) yesterday afternoon after the call. He basically agreed (because) I think he understands that if we make this an enforcement issue, we may win the immediate battle but lose the war when the COI (Committee on Infractions) has to rule.”

Emmert got around that pesky obstacle by completely bypassing his own Committee on Infractions and imposing massive and drastic sanctions against the school unilaterally, which was a violation of NCAA bylaws.

The NCAA’s nefarious strategy, as outlined in the just-revealed email exchange, was that the school was so embarrassed by Sandusky’s actions it was highly likely it would agree to anything, and that is exactly what I wrote in my book, Crisis Communications: The Definitive Guide to Managing the Message. I wrote that the school was so desperate for “closure” it would have admitted to anything, up to and including the Lincoln assassination. And I also added that imposing the enforcement action in the manner it did would one day backfire, and it has: “It was a crisis communications decision that the supercilious NCAA may one day rue. It inadvertently crossed a Rubicon by taking what it viewed as an expedient shortcut, and in effect compromised the integrity of its own future investigative authority. Others have claimed this NCAA bitch-slapping of Penn State was a way for Emmert to bolster his own persona.”

Why is this coming to light now?

Because the school was hoodwinked into signing a consent decree in 2012, it foolishly signed away its right to ever sue the NCAA regarding this matter. But others can and have.

In recent weeks, as the January trial date approaches, the NCAA has lifted some (not all) of the sanctions it originally imposed on Penn State. Those who still believe in Santa Claus think that’s because former Senator George Mitchell, who was appointed by the NCAA to monitor Penn State, wrote a favorable report about the school. Hah! Mitchell’s got nothing to do with it, no matter what anyone says. The NCAA has been frantically trying to get this lawsuit dismissed because it doesn’t want its authority publicly challenged in court, or the truth (such as those emails) to come out, and it was desperately trying to use Mitchell as cover.

But the NCAA didn’t count on Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey, who is nobody’s fool and is determined to hear this case. And when she does, I predict a lot more of the embarrassing inner workings of the NCAA sausage factory will come to light, which will lead to a shakeup in that sports organization. The once invincible NCAA is about to be taken to a Pennsylvania woodshed, and it is largely the fault of Emperor Emmert and his hubris.

But the board still has work to do, including overturning the accuracy challenged Freeh Report and wholeheartedly supporting the Attorney General in her hoped-for action against the NCAA.

It was amusing to watch just-ousted Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett urgently trying to back-pedal by saying Penn State “probably” should not have fired Joe Paterno. He thinks the board – on which he sits and wields enormous power and a disproportionate number of votes – should only have suspended him and let him finish out his career of three more games. But Silent Tom was mute for the past three years, until just 48 hours after the voters soundly rejected him at the polls. This is an epic example of “too little, too late.”

Additionally, every other school subjected to NCAA rules and regulations – which is to say, all of them – should be angered by the NCAA’s duplicity, especially with the realization that “There but for the Grace of God go I.” The member schools should call for an independent investigation and demand an NCAA shakeup beginning with Emmert’s ouster. (Recommendation: I’d think twice about using Louis Freeh to conduct the investigation).

I don’t have a crystal ball but I do believe the vigorous legal challenges to the NCAA’s authority in this case will prevail, Paterno’s reputation will be restored and his victories reinstated. And I think it will be a long time before the NCAA tries the same cheap trick again.

Now that the 17 cowardly members of the board who voted last week not to take a close examination of the Freeh Report understand that they were duped by the NCAA two years ago, they may want to call for another vote and get on the right side of history before it’s too late.

It was a big risk for the NCAA, no matter how you look at it. So why did they do it? Why did they “bluff” the school? Some have argued that under Paterno, Penn State had run such a squeaky-clean program (“Success with honor,” Paterno had called it) that some in other NCAA conferences jumped on the media-frenzied bandwagon calling for blood as some sort of comeuppance. Whatever the real motives, the NCAA instead went for the always questionable IIFIF play, a close corollary to the infamous Hail Mary.

Don’t know the IIFIF play?

The story is told of a group of five lawyers who lunched almost every day at a well-known Beverly Hills restaurant, where they took turns picking up the tab. One day as one attorney was scanning the bill before paying, he saw an item he didn’t recognize: the initials IIFIF and a charge of $10. The lawyer summoned the waiter and asked, “What is this IIFIF? I don’t remember anyone ordering it.”

The waiter took back the bill, crossed off the charge as he shrugged his shoulders, and said quietly, “If it flies, it flies.”