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Originally published Sunday, July 29, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Op-ed: Mark Emmert faced UW culture that went "horribly awry" before Penn State

When NCAA President Mark Emmert announced the severe penalties against Penn State last week, he could just as easily have been talking about Montlake and the University of Washington, where he served as president before agreeing to take over the governing body for collegiate sports nationwide.

Special to The Times

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When Mark Emmert announced the NCAA's severe penalties against Penn State last week, he used the language of someone who knows.

Emmert, the NCAA's president, talked like someone who's been there. And that's because he has. When Emmert lamented "an athletic culture that went horribly awry," he was referring to Happy Valley.

But he could just as easily have been talking about Montlake and the University of Washington, where he served as president before agreeing to take over the governing body for collegiate sports nationwide.

In 2008 The Seattle Times published a series, "Victory and Ruins," that showed how the UW and our community had turned a blind eye to the destructive, off-the-field conduct of some members of Washington's 2000 team, the last to win the Rose Bowl. Those events didn't occur under Emmert's watch — he became UW president in 2004 — but he confronted the fallout, calling the newspaper's revelations "shocking" and "deeply disturbing."

At Penn State, Emmert said, the worship of football had led to "perverse and unconscionable" results.

Perverse and unconscionable? When Roc Alexander, a member of UW's 2000 team, was accused by a student equipment manager of rape, university officials didn't notify police. Instead, they opted to mediate the matter through the university's student ombudsman — that is, to have the accused and accuser sit in the same room and talk it out.

When Curtis Williams, another member of that 2000 team, was convicted of felony assault for choking his wife until she passed out, the university's Athletic Financial Aid Committee refused to let the team pull his scholarship. The committee's chairman wrote a letter to Williams, saying the player's "difficulties appear to have been eliminated, largely because your wife has relocated to Alaska."

Penn State, Emmert said, had experienced a disquieting "erosion of academic values."

At the UW, members of the 2000 team — as well as other players, in years before — knew that if they were in danger of flunking out, they could always turn to Swahili to bump up their grade-point average. Williams flunked a half-dozen classes, including Psychology 101 and Astronomy 101, but his 30 credits of Swahili, with grades as high as an A-, helped keep him eligible. Anthony Vontoure, another player who struggled academically, racked up 25 credits in Swahili — and landed his highest grade, a B+, in a class called Sexuality in Scandinavia.

Referring to Penn State, Emmert said football should "never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people."

When a UW freshman accused Jerramy Stevens, another player on the Huskies' 2000 team, of rape, the university did nothing to help or protect her. When she later sued, the UW resorted to litigation tactics that were hypocritical and grossly insensitive to any dangers she might face on campus.

A culture that "went horribly awry"? In 2007, when Washington's football team lurched to a 4-9 record, Emmert received emails from boosters demanding action — or else. The former mayor of Everett offered $200,000 toward a law school scholarship if Emmert fired the athletic director and football coach. The former mayor of Walla Walla, an alumnus who had donated $112,000 to the UW, wrote that he was done: "I have clearly wasted thousands of dollars and many hours of my time thinking I was working and donating for a school that cares for athletics."

The UW, to its credit, has acknowledged the sordid history of its last Rose Bowl team. When the Times' series was expanded into a book, "Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity," the UW issued a statement to Inside Higher Ed, saying: "We all learned from the events of a decade ago that there was a collective failure, and no one — not the coaches, administrators, prosecutors, or the university — held those young men accountable for their actions. We take a different view these days: our expectations for civility are higher and our tolerance for misbehavior is much lower."

What happened at Penn State — the misplaced priorities, the corruption of values — could just as easily happen on other campuses where football reigns supreme.

Just ask Mark Emmert. He knows.

Ken Armstrong, a Seattle Times reporter, is the co-author with Nick Perry of the book "Scoreboard, Baby," which won the 2011 Edgar Award for nonfiction. The book grew out of their 2008 Times' investigative series, "Victory and Ruins."

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