August 1, 2012
BUT WAS IT THE RIGHT BOOK?
The NCAA may have thought it was throwing the book at Penn State over the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The punishment—the $60 million fine, prohibition on bowl appearances, exclusion from bowl-appearance revenues, the $60 million fine and cancellation of past Penn State victories—was no slap on the wrist.
So they threw the book at Penn State all right. But it was the wrong book.
The penalties the NCAA imposed were designed to punish the kinds of offenses the NCAA usually investigates, rule violations, like giving prospects illicit inducements to choose their college over others, which give one team an unfair competitive advantage. But Sandusky’s rapes and molestations gave Penn State no competitive advantage, and neither did its failure to lower the legal or even organizational boom on Sandusky.
The offense that Penn State committed was different, and far graver. Rather than giving it a competitive advantage, it went to the heart of the university’s relationship with its football program. Fearing that admitting to Sandusky’s predations would destroy the reputation of their colleague and damage the football program, Penn State chose turning a blind eye to Sandusky’s crimes—not even barring him from the campus or athletic facilities–over obedience to the law and the protection of his vulnerable victims. It gave the welfare of the football program priority over doing the right thing. Can anyone imagine that the university would have made such a decision if the offender had been associated with the university’s real work, education—if the offender had been, say, an English professor?
The legal and moral guilt for what happened at Penn State extends only to the man who committed the underlying offense and the men—the guilty here, the offender and his willing enablers, were all men, weren’t they? Hasn’t there been another powerful institution in recent years in which men molested young boys and then covered it up? But I digress—who allowed him almost to get away with it.
But some background responsibility extends as well to the entire Penn State family: students, fans and media, who accorded a non-academic program like intercollegiate football such disproportionate importance. It was their support, and the revenues that came with that support, that Paterno and his nominal superiors feared losing.
What punishment would fit that responsibility? Some have suggested the so-called NCAA death penalty, cancelling a year or two of football games—the penalty imposed on Southern Methodist University a few years ago for repeatedly violating recruiting rules. That would be a start.
But extirpating the disproportionate influence of football at Penn State might require more. It might require making Penn State football start all over, with club or intramural football, and with no football scholarships for a few years. It might require converting the football stadium to some other use.
What about the dozens of scholarship-holding student-athletes who were counting on their scholarships to pay for their education? Let them keep the scholarships—and study academic subjects.
Starting football over at Penn State would hurt businesses that depend on football fans for most of their revenues. But would anyone propose to retain football just so that sweatshirt shops can enjoy five or six good days—the number of college home games—a year?
And maybe making Penn State start over would have a salutary effect on other universities at which football or basketball reigns supreme. “In this country,” Voltaire wrote in Candide*, they “kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.” Maybe salting the earth on which football has flourished at Penn State would encourage some others.