In a still developing story out of the University of Pennsylvania, the remainder of the school’s women’s volleyball team’s season has been canceled, with two games left to play, because of “vulgar” signs that were posted in the locker room. It is still unclear what the signs said, but the content caused the school to take immediate action. It has already been a volatile season for the team, which has seen a number of its veteran players quit amidst eight separate formal grievances filed against coach Iain Braddak. Player’s have complained about Braddak’s treatment, which has left them feeling, “offended, mistreated or dejected.” In addition, the students have also gone on the record to say that they feel as though they have received an indifferent response to the charges by the school.

The 31-year-old Braddak has risen quickly through the ranks of collegiate coaching, taking increasingly higher-profile positions since his first head coaching job in 2010, when he ran the junior varsity men’s team at Springfield College, his alma mater. His first varsity coaching position came in 2012, with the men’s team at Culver-Stockton. He began coaching women’s teams in 2013, at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, and since then he has worked for Smith College, Columbia and now, the University of Pennsylvania, making six employers in nine years.

Braddak is a rising star in college sports, but the controversy has resulted in the first canceled season of his career. (photo: The Daily Pennsylvanian)

Braddak once gave an American Volleyball Coaches Association webinar entitled, “Get Out of Your Head! – Generating Practice Sessions to Train Mental Strength, Cognitive Skills, and Mental Stamina.” While the case is ongoing, it’s not a giant leap to believe that a coach who seems preoccupied with emotional toughness, (he used “mental strength” and “mental stamina” in the same title, after all) could cross over into the belligerent behavior described by his players. According to multiple sources, in an effort to get one of his players to keep her hands up, he ordered the assistant coach to hit the student in the face with the next ball to teach her a lesson. Inspiring.

The University of Pennsylvania’s response to the offensive material is not unprecedented. Just last week, Lackawanna College, also in Pennsylvania, canceled its men’s basketball season when team members joined in a fight that resulted in three people being hospitalized. Harvard suspended its entire 2016 men’s soccer team after an internal investigation proved that that members made continual lewd and sexual comments about the women’s squad. In another recent move that was less punitive and more merciful, Earlham College in Indiana canceled its entire football program at the conclusion of the 2018 season after the school suffered its fifth consecutive winless campaign, achieving a Division III record of fifty-three straight losses.

During the Great Depression, many schools eliminated their sports programs, ostensibly as cost saving measures. The cuts were also a pushback by intellectuals against the increased importance of athletics in universities, exemplified in a 1929 study done by the Carnegie Foundation. The report, which referred to itself as “a friendly effort to help toward a wise solution as to the place of such sports in our educational system,” decried the amount of time, as well as unregulated university money, that was being spent on sports. In addition to condemning the admittedly-blurred lines between professionals and the supposedly amateur student athletes, the study strongly advised that academics should be the focus of colleges. Their solution was an emphasis on intramural contests, and many already cash-strapped schools signed on for this austerity measure.

The 1923 Rose Bowl between USC and Penn State was played before a packed house. The rise in popularity of college sports was almost immediate, and scholars became concerned about the effect on students.

With the end of World War II, and the rebounding of the economy, many colleges returned to their previous models, and the number of sports programs around the country exploded. What had gone unaddressed in the intervening years since the Carnegie study was the complete lack of regulation. Virtually unrestricted numbers of scholarships were given away, as administrators placed quantity over quality when it came to student athletes. Worse, between 1948 and 1952, there were multiple prosecutions of students, coaches and alumni for point shaving schemes and gambling cartels. Congressional hearings ultimately led to a strengthening of the National Collegiate Athletics Association, the NCAA, which had previously held little power.

Basketball was particularly rife with scandal in the 1950s. Public interest in the college version of the sport was just picking up steam, and with the increased number of fans came increased corruption. It quickly came to light, in 1951, that multiple New York City-based schools were involved in point-shaving schemes. City College of New York had no less than seven players involved in the scandal. Eighty-six games were impacted and the resulting punishments crippled basketball programs in the City, with effects that can still be felt to this day. Thirty-two players, six game fixers, three gamblers and two agents were arrested on multiple charges, with most of the students receiving suspended sentences.

The most severe punishment meted out to a student was given to Long Island University forward Sherman White. White was the nation’s leading scorer in 1950-51 and was en route to becoming the highest single-season scorer in NCAA history when he was arrested in February 1951. New York had previously enacted specific legislation that made it illegal to offer, or accept, a bribe in relation to a sporting event, professional or amateur. White had taken $5,500 for participating in at least two fixes. White, an African-American, later admitted to being combative in the courtroom, so it is difficult to know if he received the harshest sentence of all the students because of his attitude or, as many later claimed, his skin color. He served nine months at Riker’s Island and was banned from ever playing in the NBA.

One of the schools involved in the scandal, Kentucky, saw three of its arrested players escape conviction. At the time of the arrests, two of them, Ralph Beard and Alex Groza, were playing in the NBA for the Indianapolis Olympians. The third, Dale Barnstable, had been drafted by the Boston Celtics. Despite being absolved by the court, the taint of their actions led to the end of their NBA careers. The case also revealed that Kentucky had been paying players and allowing ineligible athletes to compete. In a first, the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA not only banned the basketball team for the entire 1952-53 season, but the entire Kentucky athletic program was forbidden from participating in the post-season that year.

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From left: Dale Barnstable, Alex Groza and Ralph Beard. At extreme right is attorney Harold Frankel. The three former Kentucky players escaped jail time, but their NBA careers ended before they ever really began.

The extreme punishment, which has come to be known as the NCAA Death Penalty, has been enacted four more times in the ensuing years: the University of Southwestern Louisiana basketball program from 1973-1975, the Southern Methodist University football program in 1987, the Morehouse College men’s soccer teams in 2004 and 2005 and the MacMurray men’s tennis program from 2005-2007. All of those scandals involved improper payments or recruiting violations. Even more schools including, now, the University of Pennsylvania, have practiced self-imposed death penalties to prove to NCAA officials that they take the various infractions seriously.

These penalties highlight one of the extreme differences between smaller collegiate programs and professional sports. There have been egregious examples of misconduct by personnel and players in professional sports, perhaps most famously the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox,” who fixed the World Series. The Houston Astros currently find themselves embroiled in a controversy in which former team members have alleged that they used a combination of high- and low-tech means to steal and convey signs during their 2017 Championship run. The punishments for such crimes often involve fines and the loss of draft picks, but no serious consideration has ever been given to a team being outright banned from participation. Such a move would have drastic and far-reaching economic effects.

That’s what’s really at the heart of the difference between the punishments for colleges and professionals. The money. Few college programs generate the kind of cash that a Major League Baseball team does. However, the teams that are from the higher profile programs suffer different fates than the University of Pennsylvania’s women’s volleyball. The most infamous, and perhaps most grotesque, story to come out of college sports in recent history is the tragedy of Penn State. The scandal, in which it was revealed in 2011 that assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had sexually abused ten boys over a fifteen-year period, horrified the whole nation, including those who previously paid no attention to college football.

Despite the scandal, Penn State continues to be one of the most profitable sports programs in college football, generating $5.3 million in 2017.

The reputations of Penn State, and its legendary head coach, Joe Paterno, were annihilated and the punishment was severe. The school was required to pay a $60 million fine over five years, though it should be pointed out that at the time of the penalty the football program was making $18 million annually. They also surrendered, in the record books, every win the team had achieved since the first confirmed instance of abuse, in 1998. A total of 112 wins were vacated, 111 of those helmed by Paterno. Scholarships were canceled, the school was put on probation and it was given a four-year ban from appearing in bowl games, the most lucrative of all college football opportunities.

Still, the program was allowed to survive. Not a single season was canceled, a move that not only would have cost Penn State millions of dollars, but would also have affected their opponents, who often saw an uptick in ticket sales when the perennial powerhouse came through town. While we do not know what was written on the signs in the University of Pennsylvania women’s volleyball locker room, it is almost impossible for the content to be anything as horrific as the actions of Sandusky and the inaction of Paterno. It is also striking that this punishment was enacted upon a group of young women who were actively campaigning against a male coach who has allegedly practiced abusive behavior against them. Time will tell if who ever hung the offending signs crossed a line, or if the actions of the school administration were retaliatory. No matter the result, it will be interesting to see what the NCAA chooses to do about it.

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