With great interest I watched NCAA President Mark Emmert announce the sanctions against Penn State, for the complicity of Joe Paterno and university officials in covering up former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's abuse of young boys on the school's campus. Sandusky, found guilty of sexually abusing boys over a 15 year period, awaits sentencing on 48 counts of child abuse.
This is uncharted territory for sports - college or professional, so it was hard to anticipate what the penalty might be. And, there is no doubt that penalty should be as unprecedented as the crime. And that's what it was. This was not a 'rules infraction'; it was a crime. So I, with sports fans across the nation listened as Emmert intoned the penalties:
- A $60 million fine
- A four year ban from post season play
- The loss of 10 scholarships a year for four years
- Penn St vacates all victories from 1998-2011
And my first reaction was, 'What? No death penalty?'!
Now, I know that sounds unforgiving and unyielding. And in a way it is - unyielding. This has nothing to do with forgiveness. According to the Freeh Report, commissioned by the university itself, officials at Penn State, including legendary coach Joe Paterno placed protecting the reputation of Jerry Sandusky and the football program above the safety of the boys they continued to allow him to bring on campus.
This is not a rules infraction. This was the most callous disregard for children by an institution of higher learning that we've been exposed to in our lifetimes. This is a crime in which the bodies, psyches and spirits of children were injured, and 'responsible' adults knew it was happening and didn't stop it.
NCAA's death penalty would have banned Penn State from playing football for a year. It has only been used once, against SMU for repeatedly paying players as an inducement to play football. I may be wrong, but I think this is far more serious.
Had Sandusky acted totally alone away from campus, I could see the argument that his conviction and sentencing would be enough. Had Paterno alone known about it and refused to take action I could see the argument that his ruined reputation is just, and it should end there. But university officials, including the president were a part of the cover-up which speaks to a culture at Penn State that put the success of the football team above the mission to shape and mold young lives.
There is hardly a football team, amateur of professional that doesn't teach integrity, values and character. Any of us who have played team sports has heard the speeches, indeed the sermons, from coaches throughout the time we played. We realize as well that these are lofty goals of which we have all fallen short. All of us. But this is something different. And the only thing worse than Paterno and company turning a blind eye to the seriousness of this, is the rest of us turning a blind eye to it.
Yet that is what's happening.
Some of us are able to tease the issues of personal responsibility out from that of institutional responsibility and culture.
The idea that there will be 'collateral damage' i.e. students who weren't guilty who suffer because of the sins of a few; or that this won't do anything to ease the pain of the victims; or concerns for the football team are seriously flawed thinking.
With any punishment there is 'collateral damage'. The NCAA deftly avoided this by allowing students to transfer without losing eligibility or even maintaining scholarships at the school, whether they continue to play football or not. Players are taken care of. In major universities the football program foots the bill for other non-revenue generating sports programs. Again, the NCAA covered this by demanding that the $60 million cannot come at the expense of other sports programs.
Nonetheless, it is not right that there will be a 2012 football season for Penn State.
This is not about making the victims feel better. There are young men and boys who will need long term therapy to deal with the scars they've hidden for far too long. If justice and accountability means that Penn State has to struggle to rebuild a program that they ruined, that's too bad. Football is a game. It can be a business. It can be a lucrative business. But it should not the vehicle for the exploitation or victimization of children and it should not blind people - or fans - to the very values it extols. The loss of a season for exploitation, victimization and despoiled values should be the loss of one season - at least.