NCAA sanctions Penn State and demonstrates trust leadership

Today, the National Collegiate Athletic Association held an unprecedented news conference to announce equally unprecedented sanctions against a university, Penn State. Notably, the NCAA took only 11 days to announce punitive and corrective sanctions against the university, after former FBI director Louis Freeh shared details of his investigation.

Demonstrating trust leadership

Referring to the NCAA’s decision to take swift action, chair of the NCAA executive committee Ed Ray said, “I heard not a single voice in the executive committee [or] the division 1 board that wanted to step back and not take action now.” He continued by saying there was a “unanimous sense that we needed to act, and we needed to act quickly and effectively.”

Simply by acting and providing clear direction to Penn State athletes and students, the NCAA gave these young people a sense of closure so that they may get on with their lives. The clarity also benefits colleges and universities throughout the country as the broader community of higher learning is free to set a purposeful eye to the future.

Relying on values as a guide

Describing the terrible events at Penn State, both men today repeatedly spoke of balancing athletic success with academic values. According to NCAA president Mark Emmert, institutions need to ensure that the academic values of integrity, honesty, and responsibility are not subverted by a winning-at-all-costs mentality.  Importantly, these values define a culture that says success in one area cannot come at the expense of another, and certainly not at the expense of individuals’ rights.

Emmert also frequently explained the committee’s efforts to devise sanctions that would have a meaningful effect on the institution without causing unnecessary harm to students. He expressed that dilemma in this question, “How do you craft sanctions that are punitive and corrective for a real culture change at Penn State University with minimal impact on innocent parties?”

In language that reflects challenges in other sectors of the economy, Emmert described the inherent risks to institutional culture. “One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail, or even too big to challenge,” he said. Full remarks are available at

Lessons abound

The learning opportunities for business leaders and politicians in these remarks run deep. Consider where the current economy might be if leaders had acted decisively and thoroughly in the early shadows of 2008 and 2009 to put the past behind us.

Instead, the fallout from the crisis continues to drag on us over four years later, leaving an overhang of uncertainty that stymies growth. This lack of momentum inhibits investment and innovation, which reduces hiring, and so on.

Trust matters in this nation of hard-working citizens. And, though some argue differently, the importance of integrity transcends financial differences. When the markets fell in ’08 investors were hurt, homeowners saw property values tumble, and many lost vast sums to the likes of Madoff. As a result, Americans rich and poor share a generalized fear of being left with the short end of the stick.

While justice, in its simplest form is not always possible, leadership is. Decisive, values-based leadership restores trust in institutions and inspires individuals.  In that respect, the NCAA provided a strong and courageous example today.

Note: Photo of Penn State flag by Mike Pettigano

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