What role will the NCAA take in the Penn State scandal?

NCAA President Mark Emmert address the media during a press conference in Washington, D.C.

Kai Ryssdal: There are at least two investigations into the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State going on. The criminal case is one. There's another being done by the Department of Education in Washington. A Congressional inquiry has been promised.

And there will eventually be one done by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for college athletics, both big money and small. Mark Emmert is the president of the NCAA. Welcome to the program.

Mark Emmert: My pleasure.

Ryssdal: I want to start with Penn State, obviously. The NCAA's position so far, your statements, have been that you'll let the law play out and then the NCAA will investigate as appropriate. I wonder, though, whether this isn't another example of big-time sports, big-money sports, driving institutions of higher education.

Emmert: Well clearly if those allegations are true, they're obviously despicable and they point to a culture that is fundamentally awry in which that kind of behavior could occur without being responded to in all the appropriate ways.

Ryssdal: As the body that is charged, in theory, with guaranteeing the safety of student athletes in American colleges and universities, how are you going to do that? What is your role in something like Penn State?

Emmert: Well we have rules and bylaws that -- while they were never written to address anything quite like this of course -- they speak directly to the control that institutions have to maintain over their athletic departments and their programs. And they speak very directly to ethical behavior of people in those programs and we'll apply those bylaws, and if the allegations hold up, then we'll act accordingly.

Ryssdal: Let me make sure I understand you: There is room here for NCAA sanctions against Penn State?

Emmert: We have a very strong interest in making sure that our programs are reflective of the best values of athletics and of universities.

Ryssdal: You were the president of the University of Washington for four of five years before you took the NCAA job, with a big-time college football program. I wonder what your personal experience is with trying to manage an institution, right, while at the same time trying to keep a big-time football program in check. How do you do that?

Emmert: Well the challenges of managing really significant and successful athletic departments are complex to say the least. We as a society hold athletic success in such high esteem that we've managed to, in some cases, create organizational cultures where the programs themselves seem to be above the institution and above social norms.

Ryssdal: So I looked it up, your last year at the University of Washington the football coach made -- plus or minus -- twice what you made. Does that make any sense?

Emmert: Yeah, that's about right. The marketplace for coaches, again, in these high-profile sports -- football and men's basketball especially -- has become very competitive.

Ryssdal: You're not going to tell me that the market for a football coach is tougher than the market for a guy who can run a University of Washington or a Stanford or an Ohio State. I mean, come on. Right?

Emmert: The marketplace would seem to think so.

Ryssdal: Yeah, you'd think. But it does kind of point out that it is a little bit broken.

Emmert: We in society value people who are in any kind of enterprise that attracts a great deal of attention. You look at, gee, is a musician in a pop band inherently more valuable to society than a nurse or a teacher, and you'd probably come up with a conclusion that they're not. But on the other hand, when they're successful, they draw an enormous amount of attention to their enterprise and they seem to get financially rewarded for it, and that sets the marketplace.

Ryssdal: Mark Emmert is the president of the NCAA. Thanks very much for your time, sir.

Emmert: My pleasure.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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