College Football: Mark Emmert and the NCAA Are Guilty of Willful Blindness

Paul PeszkoSenior Writer IJuly 23, 2011

Mark Emmert, President of the Ostrich Farm
Mark Emmert, President of the Ostrich FarmNick Laham/Getty Images

The legal term for stating that you were not aware of a situation that you should have been aware of is called ‘willful blindness.’

Judge Simeon T. Lake III, used it in the Enron case a few years ago, only he called it a "conscious avoidance" or "deliberate ignorance."

Also known as the "ostrich instruction" (no doubt because the accused have their heads buried in the sand, so to speak) requires a lower burden of proof.  In many cases, only an inference of wrongdoing is necessary. 

College football fans should become familiar with the term because the NCAA uses this standard rather frequently to mete out punishment or even dismiss serious transgressions at will.

Obviously, without firm evidence that USC knew of the actions of Reggie Bush and the Bush family, the NCAA pulled out the “should have known” or “willful blindness” card to sanction the Trojan football program severely.

The penalties were not so much for non-compliance but rather for arrogance, since former USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett failed to self-sanction the football program.

But in Garrett’s defense, it must be noted that the two Bush accusers refused to be interviewed by USC so that the university could self-impose sanctions. 

Also, the only time they were interviewed, the NCAA refused to allow anyone from USC to be present during the process.

Jim Tressel: Nobody else to blame.
Jim Tressel: Nobody else to blame.Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

One would not be wrong in saying that the NCAA was guilty of “willful blindness.”  They simply ignored the fact that USC’s presence would have made any difference in the testimony of the Bush accusers.

Jump ahead to the present, there are several situations where the NCAA is burying its head in the sand in order to avoid severely sanctioning favored institutions in the SEC and the Big Ten.

While the NCAA refused to accept former USC assistant coach Todd McNair’s denial of knowing of any wrongdoing in the Reggie Bush case, they accepted Cam Newton’s denial of knowing of anything about his father, Cecil Newton’s “play for pay” scam.

In McNair’s situation, the NCAA inferred a cover-up based on a one-minute phone call and the testimony of an ex-felon. 

In the Newton case, the NCAA became willfully blind to the fact that a son must have known that his father was peddling the son’s skills for $180,000 to Mississippi State.

Although the NCAA, at first, thought it was a good idea to suspend Cam Newton.  No doubt with pressure from Mike Slive, president of the SEC, they reversed their initial decision and reinstated Newton, allowing him to play in both the SEC Championship and the BCS National Championship.

Accepting Cam Newton’s “I didn’t know” plea was an obvious case of “willful blindness” by the people at the Ostrich Farm in Indianapolis.

Tell me the truth, how do you like my suit?
Tell me the truth, how do you like my suit?Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In sending a letter to Ohio State this week exonerating them of any Lack of Institutional Control or Failure to Monitor is an absolute case of egregious “willful blindness” on the part of the NCAA.

They have allowed Ohio State to dump all of its violations squarely on the shoulders of former head coach Jim Tressel.  Why not?  He has already admitted his guilt in stonewalling the violations and lying to the NCAA.

But should the university have done a better job of monitoring Tressel and his players, when the former athletic director had cited Tressel several times for compliance issues?

When you have a head coach who has had obvious problems reporting certain irregularities, then the athletic department needs to have a special person monitor both the coach and its high-profile players. 

That is what is meant by “institutional control,” and that apparently is what USC lacked but Ohio State did not?

Finally, the NCAA cites former Tennessee head football coach Lane Kiffin for failure to monitor but has apparently exonerated the university. 

Does this sound strangely similar to Ohio State’s situation? 

In the first instance, Ohio State dumps full responsibility on Jim Tressel with well over a decade of head coaching experience

Tennessee, on the other hand, is allowed to do the same thing with Lane Kiffin, who was in the first year of his college head coaching career.  A first-year college head coach, and the school is not expected to monitor him extra closely?

In both cases, it sounds to me like the drug transporter who tells the judge that he had no idea what was in the back of the truck. 

Of course, in a court of law, any judge would throw out this defense.  But in the court of the NCAA, it is your “Get Out of Jail Free” card if you are a dominant school in the SEC or the Big Ten.