Should NCAA Punish Penn State?

(Credit: Robert J. La Verghetta)

In the “findings” section of the Freeh Report, the independent investigation into the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal at Penn State, the investigators note one of the many causes for the failure to protect the victims and report the crimes to authorities: “A culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.”

Let me be clear: The Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal is a Penn State issue. It is not a Michigan or an Ohio State or a Notre Dame or a Texas or a Southern Cal or an Alabama issue, even though these schools may have a “culture of reverence for the football program.”

I can’t shake that phrase—a bullet point on page 17 of the report—as I think about the NCAA’s involvement in this case. Tomorrow morning the NCAA will levy “corrective and punitive measures” against Penn State, it was announced today. Several outlets are reporting the punishment will be severe—a multiple-year bowl ban and a significant scholarship reduction, for example—but anything less than a complete shutdown of the football program (the “death penalty”) seems soft.

But should the NCAA get involved? Is it equipped to hand out a punishment? What exactly would they be punishing?

The legal process should take care of the guilty parties—Sandusky has been tried and will spend the rest of his life in prison; former administrators Graham Spanier (president), Tim Curley (athletic director), and Gary Schultz (vice president) should face jail time; Joe Paterno is deceased. Civil suits could cost the school tens of millions of dollars, if not more.

So what does that leave for the NCAA? To punish a football program whose wrongdoers are gone by eliminating it for a year or two? Nobody should shed a tear if that’s the outcome, but what they’d be punishing is a culture, a culture that is shared by other schools—other schools that didn’t allow that culture to permit a serial pedophile from committing heinous crimes, but that’s where it gets tricky. Ardent support shouldn’t be punished, but the culture is at the root of the problem.

There was a debate over whether Penn State should remove the 7-foot statue of Paterno that stood outside of the football stadium. It was removed today, but the bigger concern should have been the fact the statue was built to begin with. Idolizing college football coaches is one thing, but to treat them as gods when they’re still coaching (the statue went up in 2001) is disturbing. Alabama built a statue of its coach, Nick Saban, after he’d been there for all of three years.

It was this idolatry of Paterno that made him bigger than the school itself. It’s why, in 2004, when Spanier, Curley, and two other high-ranking Penn State officials—his superiors in title only—asked him to step down, he could tell them, “Get off my backside.”1

During the investigation of Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, which would ultimately determine Tressel was aware of impermissible benefits for his players and covered it up, Ohio State athletic director E. Gordon Gee was asked about Tressel’s status and said, “I hope he doesn’t fire me.” This unhealthy culture is not just a Penn State problem.

The JoePa image forced down our throats was an act. We were supposed to applaud “The Grand Experiment” Paterno always bragged about, as if a decent number of athletes passing their classes was an earth-shattering achievement. The thick glasses and rolled-up khakis gave him an “aw shucks” aura. After all, he was just a football coach, right?

“The looks are deceiving. Nobody ever was more sure of where he was going and what he was doing than Joe Paterno,” wrote Jim Murray in 1997.2 This was true even in Paterno’s final years, when he re-negotiated his contract after being subpoenaed for grand jury testimony, as The New York Times reported last weekend.

(Credit: Frances Sonne)

You wouldn’t take Paterno to care about “brand image,” but clearly he did. He tried to sweep a major scandal under the rug in order to protect the holier-than-thou image he had created for himself and his football program.

The cover-up certainly warrants the death penalty for the Penn State football program, but the best punishment, the most appropriate and significant changes, can’t be mandated by the NCAA or any other entity. Penn State should design a new Grand Experiment, one with a lot more transparency, one that other schools can follow. Because it’s the culture of big-time college football that needs to change, and someone needs to draw the blueprint.

I hope it’s not beyond repair, but maybe it is. The University of Chicago was a power program until 1939, when it realized balancing football and the ideal of an academic institution was impossible and it dropped the sport altogether.

Consider this from the Freeh Report: “One of the most challenging of the tasks confronting the Penn State community is transforming the culture that permitted Sandusky’s behavior…and which directly contributed to the failure of Penn State’s most powerful leaders to adequately report and respond to the actions of a serial sexual predator. It is up to the entire University community—students, faculty, staff, alumni, the Board, and the administration—to undertake a thorough and honest review of its culture.”

Is the NCAA, through the punishments it will hand out tomorrow morning, going to help transform that culture, at Penn State or anywhere else?

1Chico Harlan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, December 25, 2005, “Penn State’s Paterno proves his way works

2Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times, May, 8 1997, “He Thinks, Therefore He Wins

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