The Penn State football program won’t be relevant again until the third decade of the 21st century after it got hit with the most severe long-term punishment in the history of the NCAA.
NCAA President Mark Emmert bypassed the normal bureaucratic snares. No formal investigations, no review process, no appeals. After Penn State’s own internal (yet independent) Freeh Report unveiled widespread knowledge and concealment within the athletic department of Jerry Sandusky’s molestation of children, Emmert had heard all he needed to hear. Action needed to be taken.
Monday, Emmert announced that the Penn State football program would face:
- A four-year postseason bowl ban (including the Big Ten Championship Game and the playoffs beginning in 2014)
- A loss of 10 football scholarships a year for four years (Division I schools are normally allowed 85 scholarship players at a time, and may recruit up to 25 scholarship players per year.)
- The waiving of the Division I transfer restriction for all current players (including the incoming class of 2012), meaning that players can change universities without sitting out one year
- A $60 million fine, which must be paid from football revenues, to establish an endowment to help victims of child sexual abuse
- The vacating of every Penn State football victory since 1998 – the year of Sandusky’s first reported molestation on the campus – a total of 111 wins removed from the record books
It’s arguably the most devastating punishment issued by the NCAA since 1987, when it shut down the football program at Southern Methodist University for a season and a half in response to the university using booster money to pay players. SMU football has never been the same, and the sanctions are now known as the “death penalty.”
The only reason I use the qualifier “arguably,” is because some argue the actions against Penn State are even more damaging because of their duration. It’s not important, but I disagree. SMU’s postseason ban was briefer, but the program lost more scholarships, had all kinds of recruiting restrictions, and didn’t even play football for an entire year. No revenues; no player development; no nothing. It’s not the same punishment, but it will set Penn State back at least eight years (the first time the team will be able to field a full team of post-sanction players is 2020) and that’s a heavy blow.
Today, the conversation is not over the merits of the sanctions – the judicial process has found Sandusky guilty and the Freeh Report has found Penn State administrators, including head coach Joe Paterno, complicit. Rather, it is the fairness of the punishment that inspires debate.
The people implicated in Sandusky’s crimes are fired or in prison. The sanctions, then, only serve to harm a student body, and student athletes in particular, who had nothing to do with the heinous actions of a few.
It’s easy to be sympathetic to this argument, but in this case, the feeling is misguided. The NCAA’s punishment defied its usual snail’s pace, blind-eye procedures for a reason. This wasn’t a phone call at the wrong time of the year. It wasn’t free stuff for the star quarterback.
This was not improper contact with a recruit; this was improper contact with a child.
This wasn’t about the competitive balance of a game; this was about the integrity of collegiate athletics and how the power they wield over the university structure has gotten completely out of control. Because of the vast revenue they generate, powerhouse football programs have become “too big to fail,” Emmert asserted during the press conference announcing the sanctions, “Indeed, too big to even challenge.”
“[The sanctions] reflect the magnitude of these terrible acts but also assures Penn State will rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry,” he said. “Football will never be put ahead of educating, protecting and nurturing young people.”
The guilty may be gone, but the precedent had to be set. A man used his position at an institution of higher learning to molest boys, and the institution let him. That must never happen again. More generally speaking, an athletics program must never possess that type of power again.
As to the punishments, the student athletes themselves are free to avoid them. Transfer rules are waived and players may go to any school they choose. If you’re good enough to make the roster at Penn State, you can find a spot at a competitive program. I understand that for some it is not that simple. For some, State College, Pa., was the destination for reasons other than football. For some, it was a lifelong dream to play for the Nittany Lions. For both, decisions must be made. For either, alternatives are available.
The fine benefits the university’s image as much as anyone else’s. Penn State will have no problem framing their $60 million punishment as an act of charity, part of what should be much larger and unprovoked efforts to stop abuse and help victims.
The vacating of victories is normally a hollow punishment. Nobody remembers when wins are retroactively revoked because sport happens in the moment. But the all-time wins list for coaches is one of the few records that college football fans know about and care about. It’s a list filled with coaches who spent most of their lives on the sidelines of one college’s football field. It’s the ultimate legacy list, and thanks to the vacating of 111 wins, Joe Paterno falls from the very top of that list to eighth.
This isn’t important because Paterno loses something. He has passed on. It’s important because now every time that list is displayed during a game telecast or on a highlight show or in a newspaper column or in a game program, it will be impossible not to remember Paterno and how he lost his top spot. The NCAA’s punishment creates a mighty asterisk that will cause the actions of Sandusky, and the inaction of Paterno and university leaders to live on in infamy.
Emmert was proactive, because the situation demanded it. He acted swiftly in light of comprehensive and damning evidence volunteered by the guilty institution and put on the public record by a criminal trial. And while overexertion of swift justice can make for vigilante injustice, the NCAA looks better today than it has in a very long time. Led by its president, it tore down one of its most prestigious member institutions for the greater good. Sometimes, the sledgehammer is the appropriate tool.