The NCAA took unprecedented, even draconian, measures today in response to the Penn State sex abuse scandal – as well they should have. The fact that former coach Jerry Sandusky was raping children and young men under cover of his role as a highly placed member of a seemingly trustworthy and definitely venerated institution was bad enough. The fact that we now know that his superiors either actively covered for him or passively ignored what they should have known, demanded a response to the entire institution for its role in one of college athletics ugliest moments ever.
There is a difference, however, between punishing guilty individuals and the institution which they lead, and punishing all those who happened to pass through that institution but played no role in the wrong doing that occurred there. There is also a difference between punishing past behaviors, and foolishly attempting to rewrite the past. Unfortunately, the NCAA, however well-intentioned, seems not to appreciate those differences.
The $60 million fine levied against Penn State makes all the sense in the world. It will affect the institution as a whole, as it should. Some may scream that a fine of this size represents a form of collective punishment – one which will impact far more than the football program. It may, but their objection is poorly taken.
The fine represents not collective punishment, which is unethical, but collective responsibility, which is completely ethical and totally appropriate in this case especially. When the university president does wrong, things should go wrong for the university, and the amount in this case is tied directly to the program where the wrong occurred – the 60 million representing one year’s gross revenue from the football program.
The school will also lose out on its typical share of post-season “bowl game” revenue for the next four years. That adds an additional $13 million per year in penalties. Again, the school pays a price for what its leaders did, as it should. But why its current players and those playing over the coming four years should also be banned from playing in those games is beyond me. They did nothing wrong and some of them are not yet even on the team!
Why could they not have allowed Penn State to play in those games but deny them the revenue from them? That would have afforded the players and staff, who are blameless, the opportunity to distinguish themselves without allowing the school as an institution to profit from their achievement.
Along the same lines, what value is served by vacating all team victories that occurred between 1998 and 2011? I get that erasing those 112 victories from Paterno’s record moves him from the all-time winningest coach to number 12, but what about the players who played in those games? What about the staff during those seasons? And what about the missed opportunity to remind people that victory on the field may actually be linked to losses off of it?
By scrubbing the record, the NCAA demonstrated nothing so much a either a failure of imagination on the NCAA’s part, or a foolish attempt at historical revisionism which seeks to rewrite the past rather than struggle with it. Rather than pretend away what really happened, an especially dangerous response when child molesting is the issue, the NCAA needed to place that dreaded asterisk next to Paterno’s name. The asterisk would forever indicate that during those years, the coach with the most victories was also chalking up the most moral and ethical failures.
This was a moment that demanded attention-getting measures – measures that would not only punish for the past, but actually educate for the future. The harsher the measure though, the more deftly it must be applied. The NCAA appreciated the need for tough action and for that all people, especially those who love college sports, should be grateful. Unfortunately, they did not appreciate the need for deft application.
The NCAA used a bomb when they needed a scalpel. In doing so, they not only hurt innocent people, but lost important opportunities to teach lessons about the dangers of athletic idolatry, and the need to remember past failures in the effort to keep history from repeating itself. Avoiding those pitfalls, is less about how much Penn State can be made to suffer today, and more about how it can be made to remember the events of its recent past well into the future. On that score, the NCAA missed a very valuable opportunity.