Yesterday, former FBI Director Louis Freeh released a detailed report about the involvement of Penn State University officials, including the late Joe Paterno, in facilitating Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of a number of young boys. The report paints the picture of a criminally reckless administration, more concerned with defending itself from bad press than taking action to protect children that they knew Sandusky was likely to abuse.
But yesterday began a string of pundits weighing in on this story and that’s where I heard the dumbest thing I heard this week. More than one pundit have called for the imposition of the NCAA’s “Death Penalty” to Penn State in response to these allegations. This is ridiculous.
The “Death Penalty” is a devastating punishment in the quiver of the NCAA and has only been invoked one time in Division I sports (something called the “death penalty” had been invoked before, but the death penalty we know today, as influenced by the “repeat violator rule,” has only been invoked once). In that instance, Southern Methodist University had already been on probation 5 times in the preceding 9 years and the scope of the recruiting and “pay-for-play” scandal was so engrained in the culture of the school that the GOVERNOR OF TEXAS was involved! The students themselves were also implicated in the scandal. The death penalty represented the “last straw” to halt the string of violations that undermined the competitive equity of the sport.
The scandal at Penn State is a criminal matter and a reason for the administration to clean house, but it has nothing to do with the NCAA. There is a natural inclination to want to see punishment for everyone involved in this scandal and to grasp at every avenue for punishment. The NCAA, though, is an entity in place to maintain the competitive equity of athletic programs. Unlike the SMU case, Penn State and Joe Paterno were not paying players or committing recruiting violations. Penn State and Joe Paterno weren’t juicing players or otherwise flouting the NCAA’s drug policy. And Penn State and Joe Paterno weren’t behind academic fraud to put ineligible players on the field. While I sympathize with the idea that Penn State should be fully punished for its failings, that just isn’t the proper role of the NCAA.
Even the most extreme reading of the Penn State scandal — suggesting that covering up the Sandusky scandal helped Penn State by avoiding bad press — fails to pass muster. Sandusky was heading out the door when the first case was brought to light. Had Penn State turned Sandusky over to the police the next day, they would not have suffered competitively. If anything it would have reinforced the prevailing image of Penn State at that time as a program committed to doing the right thing. The Sandusky cover up did not happen because football was too important to Penn State, it happened because a string of administrators, including Joe Paterno, were less concerned about children, their university, or their football program than they were in avoiding the suggestion that they, as administrators, were responsible for employing a child molester. It was a criminal personal decision by individuals trying to save their jobs and legacies, not an institutional decision.
Let the criminal justice system run its course and punish those who did wrong, but don’t suggest that the NCAA should punish students who have nothing to do with any wrongdoing.