By Marc Isenberg
Earlier this year the NCAA took unusual steps when it leveled “unprecedented” penalties against Penn State. The NCAA was absolutely correct to send a clear, unambiguous message that criminal negligence from high-ranking university and athletic officials will not be tolerated. Yes, some of the penalties were excessive, but something had to be done. But why stop there? Let's look at other instances of abuse.
For starters, the NCAA should examine how Indiana University mishandled Neil Reed’s 1997 allegation that he was choked by Bob Knight and how Indiana’s leadership quashed these claims, which were later proven to be true.
In July, Reed tragically died from a heart attack at age 36, which spurred me to revisit the events surrounding the infamous incident that not only led to Knight’s dismissal, but also helped catapult the late Dr. Myles Brand to the presidency of the NCAA.
While it should not take his dying to realize this, Reed showed great courage. He challenged an all-powerful college coaching legend with just his word against Knight’s. It was not a fair fight, especially since the entire Indiana administration, including Brand, worked to destroy Reed’s claims. The backlash was fast and furious. But Reed stood firm – and brave. In a world filled with frivolous lawsuits, it is interesting that Reed, who had legitimate claims against Indiana and Knight, never sued for physical abuse or defamation.
It is important to remember that Reed first alleged that Knight choked him in 1997, not in 2000, when CNN/SI made it a national story. Respected journalist Gene Wojciechowski laid out the allegations in December 1997. According to Wojciechowski, Indiana "leaders" promised an inquiry, which turned out be a sham and just gave them more time to destroy Reed’s credibility.
If the NCAA is going to weigh in on the leadership failures at Penn State, they cannot ignore what happened at Indiana, even if it means turning a critical eye on Brand, their celebrated leader. Of course, the NCAA has its own legacy to protect.
(The NCAA didn't just build a statue like Penn State did to honor Joe Paterno. It named its HQ in honor of the late Dr. Myles Brand.)
So how do we know that Myles Brand was in on it? His chief PR flack was Christopher Simpson, now deceased, agressively denied Reed's claims. After CNN broke the story nationally in 2000, Simpson went to appalling lengths to discredit Reed. Said Simpson, “If CNN is saying Neil Reed said it, then I question anything Neil Reed says.” There's nothing subtle there: Reed is lying about being choked. Move along.
Reed’s allegations were confirmed when Ron Felling, a former Indiana assistant whom Knight fired during the 1999-2000 season, sent footage of the choking incident to CNN.
If you ever want to know the blueprint for sweeping serious allegations against NCAA members under the rug, Christopher Simpson, Dr. Brand and IU wrote the book.
Simpson admitted that the investigation of Reed’s claim undertaken in 2000 was designed to keep IU in control. Wrote Simpson, “We knew we would get hammered short term for investigating ourselves, but at least we would retain control of the investigation which we couldn't do if we had brought in an entirely objective outsider."
In 1998, Brand and IU trustee John Walda (whom Brand asked to lead that 2000 sham investigation) co-authored a bizarre op-ed defending Knight.
Sports Illustrated’s senior writer Alex Wolff responded to several softball questions posed in their article. Asked Brand and Walda: “So where is the 'unacceptable behavior' the media have honed in on so intently?”
Wolff’s answer: “Wiping your rear end to graphically demonstrate contempt for your team's play, as Knight allegedly did, is unacceptable. Guilt-tripping a player into not transferring – as Knight did to Luke Recker by threatening to quit as coach and thereby bring down the wrath of the state on Recker’s teenaged shoulders – is unacceptable. Verbally abusing people, whether they're your ‘students’ (if we're to accept the premise of Knight as educator) or your ‘boss’ (if we’re to accept the charade of Knight as subordinate), is unacceptable. As for the physical assault alleged to have occurred, it’s more than unacceptable. It’s criminal.”
At least at Penn State, they eventually commissioned the independent Freeh Report, which ventured to find out what happened without concern for legal liability and develop recommendations to ensure this never happens again. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.
What should happen to Indiana? I am sure the NCAA and Indiana would like to bury this sad chapter. But, if NCAA and its members want to demonstrate that it is capable of protecting children, athletes and others, then it must address these inconvenient truths. After all, that is exactly why the NCAA was chartered to do when it was established over 100 years ago.
And Indiana should formally apologize to Reed’s family for how it treated him. I am not sure NCAA sanctions against Indiana would serve any purpose, but an independent investigation, which was thwarted under Brand's leadership, would help us understand how and why this was allowed to occur.
The NCAA could also require Indiana to set aside several million dollars to set up a fund to assist student-athletes who allege abuse or mistreatment by coaches. The NCAA should ensure that athletes who are mistreated are heard, rather than silenced. The NCAA should also match these funds. In other words, the NCAA could “put their money where their mission is.”
Let me conclude with a poignant email that I received from Dr. Ellen Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Drexel and keen observer of social justice issues in sport:
“In the Freeh Report commissioned by Penn State, investigators noted that part of the failure in leadership at the very top of that institution was due to officials and trustees ignoring or missing several ‘red flags’ over the years. The college sport community has done the same. Neil Reed’s story, another red flag, offers a haunting reminder of how victims have been blamed, how the truth about the mistreatment of the least powerful has been swept aside and covered over, only to come to light because of the efforts of the brave few. Reed’s story should be remembered and included in a vow that these problems will be sincerely addressed and that no child, no young person will have to endure abuse at the hands of a coach. May he rest in peace while the rest of us have no peace until such a vow is realized.”