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One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: On Franco, Confrontations, and Rebuilding

The John Ziegler/Franco Harris media stunt "confrontation" with NCAA President Mark Emmert was counterproductive

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Patrick Smith

This isn't helping.

For decades, Penn State's national reputation was impeccable. Its growth from a small agricultural college into one of the premier public research universities in the world coincided with the remarkable success of its athletic department. Sports and academic success weren't mutually exclusive; in fact, each could benefit from the other. The result was a university that was widely recognized as an institution that "did things the right way." It was recognition that its alumni community took pride in, and recognition that the community tried to live up to and reinforce with its actions.

Last November, the Jerry Sandusky scandal did untold amounts of damage to that reputation. Sure, Penn State is still widely recognized as a premier public research university, and its athletic programs are still quite successful. Even so, there are plenty of people who believe that Penn State has put its athletic prowess ahead of child safety, and that the university has "fundamental culture problems."

That's a direct quote from NCAA President Mark Emmert, a man who appears to have little knowledge about the intricacies of the Penn State situation and even less interest in learning about it.[1] Still, Emmert's words carry weight. When the President of the NCAA tells the world that your institution has a "culture problem," people take notice.

Penn Staters have done yeoman's work to rebuild the university's tattered reputation. In the immediate aftermath of the Sandusky scandal, this community helped to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for a leading child abuse prevention organization through only grassroots efforts. The football team comported itself with dignity and class, and will be recognized by the Maxwell Football Club for its efforts in the face of adversity. And others continue their work to show the world who "we are" - raising millions upon millions of dollars for the Four Diamonds Fund through the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, finding potential cures for cancer, and having two starters on the football team named First Team Academic All-Americans.[2]

Those efforts are productive. The publicity received from these efforts is almost uniformly positive, and it reminds those who normally only give Penn State a passing glance a reason to remember the good that the university is doing for the world.

But yesterday, this happened:

John Ziegler is a libertarian/conservative radio host and filmmaker who has taken a special interest in defending Joe Paterno's legacy. To that end, Ziegler has teamed with a group of Penn State alumni and supporters, including Pro Football Hall of Famer Franco Harris, who are determined to get to "the truth" about the Sandusky scandal and Paterno's much debated role in an alleged "cover up." And yesterday, he brought a camera crew to Los Angeles so that Franco Harris could "confront" NCAA President Mark Emmert during or after a speaking engagement at the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.

"Confrontations" appear to be Ziegler's M.O. The truth, of course, is a bit more benign. Harris posed a question during the event and Emmert responded. Dissatisfied with that answer, Harris and Ziegler, camera crew in tow, sought to speak with Emmert after the event. They were able to do so briefly, Emmert gave a curt response to Harris' request that he meet with the NCAA, then left. The police were called after Ziegler was warned multiple times that cameras were not permitted at the event. Ziegler then took to twitter, bragging that Emmert had run away out a back door after being confronted. A minor "Twitter war" ensued afterwards between's Ben Jones and Ziegler after Jones questioned the usefulness of Ziegler's tactics.

There's little question in my mind where I stand. This was counterproductive.

After the incident, Harris mentioned that this is "far from over" with the NCAA. Maybe it's not. Maybe it shouldn't be. There are plenty of logical, thoughtful arguments to be made against the NCAA and Emmert's unilateral sanctioning of the Penn State program. There are plenty of ways you might go about influencing public opinion in a positive manner. For instance, you might consider appearing on national television and being interviewed by an award winning, highly respected, widely acclaimed sports journalist.

This Franco Harris has far greater impact than one who attempts to "confront" the NCAA President over due process for Joe Paterno, and then brags on Twitter about having the police called.

We, as a community, have spent thirteen months defending our "culture" against half-truths, misstatements, and misunderstandings. We're finally getting to the point where the Penn State brand has value again, and where people don't immediately mention the Sandusky scandal when the university is brought up in conversation.

We still have a long way to go. We still have more work to do. The spirit may be right. The NCAA was wrongheaded and foolish. But tactics matter, and moments like yesterday stall an entire community's efforts to pick itself up, dust itself off, and get back on its feet.

[1] If you can somehow explain why Emmert insists on tying his sanctions back to an incident in 1998 that was investigated by outside authorities and that an elected public official declined to prosecute, then please do so, because it's inexplicable.

[2] Penn State was one of two schools with multiple first team honorees. #Culture