Like most of you, my jaw hit the floor when the NCAA announced its penalties on Penn State’s football program yesterday. In the unlikely event that you missed it, the sanctions included a $60 million fine, no bowls for four years, a 10-scholarship reduction over the next four signing classes, five years’ probation, and the vacating of all victories from 1998 to 2011. It also reserved the right for more sanctions pending the criminal trials for those Penn State employees who stood by and did nothing while knowing that Jerry Sandusky was sexually abusing young boys.
The NCAA’s action on Tuesday was historic. Not since it administered the so-called “death penalty” to cancel Southern Methodist’s 1987 football season has any school been the brunt of such severe NCAA punishment.
As you can expect, lots of Penn State supporters felt the penalty too harsh, citing that those being punished were players and coaches who did nothing wrong. Some on the other side of the fence thought the NCAA was too easy; after all, PSU still gets to play football, and play it on TV, to boot.
It’s hard to make a level-headed judgment on these things barely 24 hours removed from the NCAA’s hammer. It’s an emotionally-charged issue on both sides, and furthermore, we won’t really know the penalty that Penn State pays for probably a decade or more. When the NCAA lowered the boom on Southern Methodist, it never suspected that it was essentially giving SMU 20 years’ probation. That’s probably why we haven’t seen the death penalty in football since.
This case is infinitely more complicated for several reasons, and yet I think that the NCAA got it more right than wrong in this instance. Looking at it from every angle, it didn’t have much choice.
I start by saying that I have sympathy for those at Penn State who had nothing to do with it. That includes not only the current football players and coaches, but also the other Penn State athletes and coaches whose programs will be hurt because they were funded by football.
I also acknowledge that true justice will never be done. Sentencing a powerhouse program to years of mediocrity (and possibly worse) does nothing to restore innocence of Sandusky’s victims or heal their wounds. Nor does this punishment fall on the perpetrators of the crime, though hopefully that will happen as well in another time and venue; with Sandusky, it already did.
But as to the institution of Penn State itself, the punishment couldn’t be fairer.
After all, it was Penn State’s complete disregard for the well-being of the punishment being inflicted on the innocent that got it in this mess in the first place. That’s probably why the university, even before knowing what the penalties would be, decided not to appeal them. It knew that its own line of reasoning would be hypocrisy.
Second, had the NCAA gone easy on PSU, it would have boxed itself in for decades to come on enforcement of other matters. For illustration, let’s suppose that the NCAA went easier on Penn State – perhaps removed five scholarships a year instead of 15, and reduced the bowl ban by a couple of years.
Now, let’s suppose that a year or two from now, the NCAA catches Enormous State University fixing grades for players and paying them salaries to play football. Those offenses pale in severity to mass child molestation, and the NCAA could not punish ESU fairly without everyone drawing comparisons. Unless it dropped the hammer on PSU, it greatly tied its own hands on every future case involving the ESUs of the world.
Finally, the NCAA’s desire has always been for member institutions to police themselves, not for it to send its own investigators to camp out on college campuses. It has always urged schools to take care of its own messes in every way, from enforcement to punishment, less justice be more severe if it became intimately involved. Here again, Penn State had 13 years to do the right thing, but its failure to do so left the NCAA with no choice.
One famous phrase sums it up best: the sins of the fathers are borne by their children. As Penn State found out Tuesday, this is just how the world must work.