Should Penn State’s football program receive the “death penalty”? The NCAA – far more swiftly than most expected – is set to hand down its decision at 9 AM Eastern, so by the time you read this, we will already know what the sentence will be.
I say sentence, because thanks to the Freeh Report, the university has already been found guilty, if only in the court of public morality.
Many of my friends — some with very close ties to Happy Valley, whether as alumni, fans or residents — have vehemently disagreed with me through the course of the scandal. I have long believed that the football program should receive the death penalty; I had, though, in recent days, wavered some from that stance, thinking that the university community was making forward progress in expressing remorse and regret for the rape of at least a dozen boys that occurred under the active protection of former head football coach Joe Paterno.
Let me emphasize two things before going forward, because the roiling emotions surrounding this depraved scandal have served to cloud things.
First, the “death penalty” as a punishment for a school’s football program amounts to nothing more than a one-to-two year suspension of the program’s operation. It has only been levied once, against Southern Methodist University in 1987. While some may want that suspension to be made permanent, in practice it wouldn’t be. So people wailing that applying the death penalty to Penn State would lead to the inevitable ruin and desolation of State College, PA, really need to check themselves. An institution as large as Penn State, with its accompanying economic footprint, differs greatly from Southern Methodist. Will there be an economic impact? Yes. Will it lead to the ruin of the town? No.
That brings me to a larger point, though. The main reason we’re here in the first place is because the people of Penn State made a conscious decision to deify Joe Paterno and place their football program on a pedestal that no athletic program at a university deserves. The primary mission of a university is to open minds, not to laud athletic feats. Whenever the subject of paying university athletes comes up, the NCAA is always at pains to remind us that athletes are students first and foremost.
That was forgotten at Penn State. And while Penn State is far from the only institution with a twisted sense of priorities when it comes to intercollegiate athletics, for many years it sought to justify that sense by emphasizing all the non-athletic good that Paterno did — and there was plenty.
That good is now interred with the bones of Paterno, while the evil that he and his accomplices in the university staff actively protected — Jerry Sandusky’s rape of at least a dozen boys — will forever live on, to the shame of his family and Happy Valley.
One of the things that people levying punishments look for is a sincere sense of regret and remorse. And there, the university community has displayed a mixed record. It is true that the university has torn down Paterno’s statue, and demolished (if only to rebuild) the very locker room where Sandusky committed many of his disgusting and depraved acts.
Punishing Penn State isn’t about making anyone feel better. Far from it. This is about resetting and putting things into the proper balance. Lest we forget: people chose to let young boys be raped in order to protect the football program. When given a choice between saving kids and saving football, people chose to save football. And it wasn’t just four guys acting in isolation; the Freeh Report makes it abundantly clear that the corruption ran riot and is endemic throughout the senior leadership of the university.
Nobody’s throwing a party over this. Nobody, and I mean nobody, wants to kill off the Penn State football program. Everyone wishes that Paterno, and if not him, then his putative superiors, had done the right thing back in 1998.
I was loath to finally say: “Kill the program.” And then I read the words of a member of the Penn State board of trustees on ESPN:
“Unbelievable,” said a Penn State trustee informed of the NCAA statement, speaking to ESPN.com senior writer Don Van Natta Jr. “Unbelievable, unbelievable.”
The Penn State trustees’ hope that the statue’s removal might send a positive message was trumped by the NCAA, which had already decided.
“Emmert has been given full reign by the pansy presidents (at other universities) to make his own decision,” said the trustee, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “He has been given the authority to impose these unprecedented sanctions. It’s horrible.”
This isn’t some anonymous student. This is someone entrusted with the guidance of the university. And there isn’t a scintilla of remorse or regret expressed in those words. There’s no realization that, hey, twelve boys were raped under my watch, so we fully accept the conclusion of the NCAA and look forward to rebuilding and redeeming people’s trust in the program. There’s no concern for the victims of this atrocity — there’s only concern for the precious football program.
That’s why we’re now at this point. These atrocities simply don’t happen if there’s no football program. They don’t. And that’s why the NCAA has to act — because we’re talking about the worst sports-related crime in the history of collegiate athletics. If they don’t, then they’re a laughingstock.
Whether or not it will prevent future crimes is unknowable; given the sorry history of collegiate athletic scandals, I doubt it. That’s not the point, though. The point is that, when faced with just about the most abominable act one can commit in society, Penn State’s leaders chose to save themselves and their precious football program over saving children. And in making that decision, they forfeited their football program.
By killing the program, the NCAA is saying: you made the wrong choice, Penn State. You needed to save children instead of football. And by choosing not to do so, now you’ve saved neither. Next time, do the right thing.
Image: ABC News