Today the NCAA announced the sanctions it is imposing on Penn State for its role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The sanctions are extraordinary, but is the punishment appropriate to the extraordinary circumstances that surrounded the Sandusky scandal?
For starters, Penn State will have to pay a $60 million fine — representing one year of revenue from its football program — to external programs aimed at preventing child sexual abuse or helping the victims of such abuse. The NCAA also barred Penn State’s football program from bowl games for five years, cut Penn State’s available scholarships for four years, and vacated all of Penn State’s many football wins since 1998. The latter penalty means that Joe Paterno will not be officially recognized as the winningest coach in college football history.
The NCAA’s response to the Penn State situation is unprecedented, because the Penn State situation was unprecedented. This wasn’t the normal NCAA investigative scenario, where players or coaches violated rules about getting money, or selling merchandise, or making too many recruiting visits. Penn State’s issue didn’t involve cheating, or doing whatever it took to put a winning team on the field. Instead, Penn State’s problem was deeper and more insidious. The many problems highlighted in the Freeh report reflect an institution, an athletic department, and a football program that was protecting its own, and thereby protecting its reputation, even at the expense of overlooking horrendous criminal misconduct involving children. I’m not sure that any sanctions the NCAA could impose could truly deal appropriately with what happened at Penn State.
Penn State has indicated that it will accept the sanctions, and it probably is secretly relieved that the penalties were not even more draconian. Some Penn State fans are irate at the sanctions, but those people care more about their football fixations than they do about Penn State, the institution. The institution clearly needs to change its focus and reorient its priorities. Allowing years to pass before Penn State’s football program can again climb to the top of the college football heap will give the University time to do just that.
One other point should be made: those sports fans who hated Penn State’s football team, and envied its success, shouldn’t view the NCAA’s actions today as a cause for celebration or mockery. Such behavior is almost as inexcusable at Penn State’s many failures. There is nothing to celebrate here, and no crass jokes should be made. Penn State’s story is one of big-time college athletics gone horribly awry. Every college with a big-time athletic program should be looking to learn a lesson from what happened, and more importantly what didn’t happen, in State College, Pennsylvania.