Around 9 a.m. Monday, the NCAA announced unprecedented penalties levied against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. Within minutes, the figurative hand-wringing began on Twitter, which, ideal or not, is where millions of us go for real-time news and opinions.
The responses ranged from “The NCAA was too harsh” to “The NCAA was not harsh enough” – although usually in more colorful words – and just about everything in between.
In the event that you haven’t already died from an opinion overdose, here’s mine: There was no right response. Why? Because no punishment related to football or university life is appropriate for crimes of this nature. None.
Did the NCAA overstep its bounds? Yes, according to the letter of the laws it claims to so strictly enforce. But it couldn’t stand idle, in part because the public might have formed an angry mob and in part because of possible future implications. That is, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where a grandstanding U.S. Senator decided to, say, threaten the NCAA’s tax-exempt status in light of its inaction on the matter. (Instead, the NCAA preemptively stood grand.)
Canceling one or more seasons would have endangered the livelihoods of too many Happy Valley residents, folks who built businesses around selling food and drink and PSU novelties to visitors. Many of them were too in the tank for Joe Paterno, but likely weren’t complicit in any crimes or cover-ups.
The $60 million fine? Various reports say that’s not a big deal when spread out over five years. So maybe it could have been higher. Time will tell. That figure will hurt more if attendance figures or donations drop and as the inevitable civil lawsuits pile up. Still, including a monetary punishment sure seems like an admission by the NCAA that, despite claims to the contrary, it values cash.
Stripping Paterno of the all-time record for wins by a college coach was arguably more complex. On one hand, I’m of the mindset that taking away records after the fact is meaningless – banners or not, we all still remember that John Calipari led schools other than Kentucky to the Final Four. On the other hand, if the most powerful people at Penn State are willing to cover-up years of abuse and/or refuse to acknowledge that the football program was not as pristine as it was billed to be – maybe vacating a bunch of victories sincerely stings.
It’s understandable that the NCAA felt compelled to include Paterno in the sanctions. But how to penalize a dead man? Take away what’s left of the money he earned after the 1997 allegations? That’s just not realistic, even in a case as unbelievable as this.
Penn State will also lose postseason eligibility and a bunch of scholarships. Essentially, it’ll be forced to operate like a team transitioning to the Football Championship Subdivision for four years. This will set back the Nittany Lions on the field. No question. And that’s probably necessary in order to prevent the football program from becoming successful enough to offset the penalties.
But I’m not sure it deserves any the-sky-is-falling treatment. I saw one talking head, a former Ohio State star, claim that PSU might not have enough players for practice in light of the scholarship reductions. Really? I cover a 63-scholarship football program for a living, and it has uniforms and games and fans and even a few NFL prospects. The more pressing issue pertains to the current PSU players – transferring can be difficult, especially if you have designs on graduating.
All told, I’m still unsure if the hammer came down too hard or not hard enough. I think the NCAA sent mixed messages, while acknowledging that might have been unavoidable. I believe groups other than the NCAA – say, the U.S. Department of Education – could have stepped in, and that other former high-ups at Penn State (including now NCAA employee Graham Spanier) should be punished. Perhaps those things will happen down the line; the NCAA, for some reason (the impending onset of another football season?), acted more quickly and decisively than usual.
Let’s hope they weren’t simply trying to bury the bodies and move on. That’s part of what got Penn State in this predicament to begin with.