The NCAA announced penalties this morning that will be imposed upon Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The severity of the penalties was met with horror from within the Penn State community. The vacation of all Nittany Lion wins since 1998, the year in which the failure by Joe Paterno and university administrators to address Sandusky’s abuse began, seemed to be an appropriate punishment. Paterno can’t face any criminal sanctions, but the symbolic abridgement of his legacy on the field dovetails with his failures in judgment off of it.
But the NCAA didn’t stop there. Not by a long shot. Instead, they decided to utterly cripple the university for years to come. Why do I say the university rather than just the football program? Because in addition to the five years of probation, the four-year postseason ban, and the ability of current players to transfer to any Football Bowl Subdivision school without having to sit out a year, the university was also fined a staggering $60 million, to be paid out over a five-year period. The funds, approximately equal to one year’s gross football revenue, are not to come at the expense of non-revenue sports (all sports other than football and men’s basketball). It is not a stretch to think that the university’s academic offerings may be compromised in an effort to pay the fine.
I’m livid about the enforcement of these penalties. The punishment in no way fits the crime. Even on the simplest of levels, these sanctions don’t make sense. There were four men who were instrumental in this scandal. Jerry Sandusky will spend the rest of his life in prison. Joe Paterno is no longer alive to face any potential criminal charges stemming from his role in the cover up or his failure to disclose the truth during the grand jury investigation. Neither Tim Curley nor Gary Schultz is in their role with the university any more; both await trial and will likely face significant jail time. Who is left to punish? The bowl ban, the scholarship reductions, and the monetary fine affect current players, current coaches, students, and faculty at the university, none of whom had anything to do with the initial scandal or its cover up.
The words of NCAA president Mark Emmert, arrogance personified as he stood delivering unprecedented punishment, seem to contradict the sanctions he and his organization imposed. “The fundamental chapter of this horrific story should focus on the innocent children and the powerful people who let them down,” he stated during today’s press conference. But how do the penalties accomplish this goal when they affect thousands of innocent parties?
The penalties also affect those who build their livelihoods on Penn State athletics. Over the next five years, the university’s athletics department will have $60 million less to pay the salaries of its employees that had nothing to do with this scandal. Actually, the total impact will be much greater. The Big Ten has announced that Penn State will not receive its allocation of conference bowl revenues, projected to be $13 million over the next five years. Will the school still be able to fill its 106,572-seat stadium with the quality of its football product greatly diminished? If not, there will be lost ticket revenue to consider. If it is able to fill the stadium, will it have to drop ticket prices to do so? How will parking revenues be affected? Will the athletics booster club still receive its current level of donations? The total impact on the school’s athletics department over the next five years could easily exceed $100 million. And that’s just the department itself. What about the people who own stores, restaurants, hotels, sports bars, and other establishments in and around State College that depend on Nittany Lion football for the bulk of their profits?
Simply put, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has grossly overstepped its bounds in this case. Child sexual abuse is in no way an athletics issue. The only ties to athletics are that Sandusky is a former coach (now imprisoned) who used the allure and facilities of the football program to lure his victims and keep them silent and that Paterno is the former head coach (now deceased) that engaged in a cover up. Jay Bilas, an ESPN personality, commented in an interview with Colin Cowherd that it seems that the NCAA is afraid of appearing to have no power to enforce rules, or that it even condones the actions of Sandusky, Paterno, Curley, and Schultz. But no action by the NCAA is the appropriate action in this case. Criminal behavior falls well outside the realm of athletics. There were no specific organizational bylaws violated. Its own judicial process was circumvented in an effort to quickly impose sanctions.
A former Committee on Infractions chair and current Division I Appeals Committee member, in an ESPN article published last night, stated that “this is unique and this kind of power has never been tested or tried. It’s unprecedented to have this extensive power. This has nothing to do with the purpose of the infractions process.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Association seems to have turned itself into a moral police force, confused whether its role is to maintain equity on the playing field or act as its own law enforcement agency that doesn’t have to follow its own rules of due process. “The purpose of the NCAA is to keep a level playing field among the schools and to make sure they use proper methods through scholarships and et cetera,” the committee member went on to say. “This is not a case that would normally go through the process. It has nothing to do with whether Penn State gets advantages over other schools in recruiting or in the number of coaches or things that we normally deal with.”
The irony of these penalties is that they actually create the inequity on the field that the NCAA exists to keep from occurring. The NCAA is, by definition, an athletics organization, having no authority to punish a university outside of its athletics programs, yet has taken it upon itself to punish all of Penn State for the inaction and misdeeds of its administrators that have nothing to do with athletics.
The precedent being set is a dangerous one. So dangerous, in fact, that it could lead to sweeping changes in the administration of college athletics. The NCAA is a voluntary organization. Nothing other than the fear of being blacklisted and being unable to find competition keeps a university in the organization. There have already been rumblings about a mass exodus from the NCAA by the largest revenue-producing schools in an effort to more fairly decide a football champion, with the side effect of significantly altering basketball’s NCAA Tournament. While the move away from the BCS system has quieted those talks for now, could this be the catalyst that causes schools to reconsider seceding? Could university presidents and administrators be so enraged by the blatant overstepping of the NCAA’s bounds that it causes the organization to reform its punitive system for fear of losing its members and its precious basketball tournament, source of 95% of its annual revenue?
But not all of this is about finances and organizational structure, legality and morality, right and wrong. It’s about the victims, too. In a candid moment at last week’s SEC Media Days, Alabama’s Nick Saban expounded upon his philosophy of handling disciplinary issues. “Everybody’s always worried about what’s the punishment,” he said. “The way I try to look at it is, what’s the outcome? What outcome do we want? Sometimes I even say to the player, what outcome do you want? Do you want to graduate from school? Do you want to play in the NFL some day? If that’s the outcome that you want, this behavior is not becoming of that. So what do we need to do to make it better?”
“What do we want the outcome of this to be,” he continued. “Something that’s a win-win for the kids and the people there now, the players there now…rather than worry about some punishment that’s not going to have a positive effect on anything.” He suggested imposing a ticket surcharge, the proceeds of which would benefit organizations serving child abuse victims. If the NCAA felt that it must act, this plan, coupled with the 111 vacated wins from the Paterno era and resulting loss of his spot atop college football’s all-time wins list, would seem to have been enough. No punishing current players. No causing department personnel to lose their livelihoods. No causing students to forfeit academic opportunities because of the despicable actions of four men. No attempt by the NCAA to do the job of law enforcement agencies. But instead, the organization chose to overstep its jurisdiction, going far above and well beyond what it should have done. Now, a perilous new precedent has been set. As Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples pointed out in an interview with Ryen Russillo, how can the NCAA twiddle its thumbs investigating jersey sales or free tattoos when there are legitimate instances of moral turpitude, such as an alleged cover-up of four Montana football players’ involvement in a gang rape, to investigate and impose harsh penalties for. Because of the precedent set in this case, the National Collegiate Athletic Association now has the responsibility, and the allusion of the power, to investigate and penalize this type of activity.
It is impossible for me to see the NCAA’s logic in this case. There is no concern for the victims. No attempt to reach out and help them. In fact, the heavy fine imposed by the NCAA may greatly hamper the university’s ability to pay damages to the victims in the civil suits that are almost certain to come. This is a purely punitive action meant to punish an entire university and change the culture surrounding a football program for the sins of four men. But do these punishments even accomplish that? Will there really be any fan, at Penn State or any other university with a football following that reaches idolatrous levels (looking at you, SEC schools), that sees the penalties levied against the Nittany Lions and decides to dial down his or her passion in an effort to change the culture around the football program?
Our thoughts and prayers need to be with the victims of Sandusky’s unspeakable crimes. They doubtlessly felt betrayed as Paterno and the administrators failed to take action against the man that had preyed upon them in their innocence, carrying the burdens of shame, guilt, and self-loathing that so often accompany the victims of these types of crimes. There seems to be no way for us as individuals to tangibly do anything to help them, but we can pray for them, their families, for other victims of this kind of abuse, and for justice for those that allowed this to happen to them. We can also be more vigilant in our own communities and circles of influence for the warning signs of any type of child abuse and resolve to alert proper authorities if it does occur.
The men who were accessories to Sandusky’s crimes deserve to be punished for their actions and inactions. Their unthinkable crimes against the most vulnerable, impressionable, and trusting members of society are despicable to their core. But it is these four men who deserve to be punished, not the university’s entire community. And they deserve to be punished by law enforcement agencies, not an association meant to create equity on the field of play. The NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State are the wrong punishments by the wrong agency at the wrong time, have the wrong outcomes in mind, and have no concern for those who we should be showing the most concern for.