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Published October 03 2012

Forum editorial: Lessons learned; move on

What could be more appropriate than that lessons are learned at a center of higher education? That’s the major take-away from the election petition fraud case against several North Dakota State University Bison football players.

Earlier this week, most of those charged with Class A misdemeanors pleaded guilty and were handed modest but reasonable sentences. Only one was suspended from the team; the others will play but face unspecified internal discipline.

Fair enough.

The players admitted they faked signatures on petitions for two ballot measures, which caused the petitions to be invalidated. The measures will not be on the November ballot. The fraud was detected by North Dakota’s secretary of state and attorney general.

The larger lesson in this multifaceted fiasco speaks to understanding what constitutes serious crime and how an allegedly sophisticated university negotiated a public relations minefield. Early on, NDSU officials bumbled around like amateurs. The question that kept rising through the muddle was, “Who’s in charge here?”

First, athletic department leaders seemed not to grasp the seriousness of petition fraud and its consequences. No big deal, they seemed to say. Boys will be boys, they suggested. Not good enough.

Second, in the initial stages of the unfolding scandal, it appeared top-level administrators did not have a handle on the situation. Athletic heavyweights seemed to be speaking with one voice while other university officials spoke with another. By the third iteration of policy/procedure/

discipline, the spinmeisters had scrambled onto the same PR page, but the damage was done.

The resolution of the criminal charges by prosecutors, a defense lawyer and a Cass County district judge is sensible. The student-athletes are guilty of ignorance, not criminal intent. That’s no excuse, it’s an explanation. And the entire episode is ripe with lessons for NDSU personnel, the players and the irresponsible petition sponsors who opted to farm out the signature-gathering process to an out-of-state company.

The athletic director apologized. The president explained. The coach made his decision. Now on with the Bison football season, which promises to be an exciting one. As fans fill the Fargodome for the best sports show in town, let the petition fraud story simmer down and eventually fade. Bison football is supposed to be about, well, football. So let’s get on with it without distractions.

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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