DALLAS – It was only a matter of time before the NCAA’s possible sanctions against Penn State would call to mind the “death penalty’’ that
the association famously imposed on SMU in 1987.
Not that anyone in Dallas wants to walk down memory lane. It was Fox News columnist Jason Whitlock who wrote: “The Pony Express begat Paterno State.’’ His main thesis is that collegiate sports are inherently corrupt.
And what was the response from the state that gave you Friday Night Lights?
“Columnist Blames SMU for Penn State’s Troubles’’ was the headline in Park Cities People, a weekly newspaper that covers the enclaves of University Park and Highland Park.
SMU is in University Park, which, like neighboring Highland Park, is a compact area of pricey homes.
The normally genteel newspaper called Whitlock a “race-baiting, mildly controversial nimrod.’’
Most of the city’s big-name sports reporters have been notably silent about SMU, which is still the only college ever dealt the NCAA’s death penalty. SMU got it as the result of a pay-to-play scandal involving top athletes and well-heeled donors.
Outside Dallas, writers for the Atlantic, CBS Sports, USA Today and the Associated Press, to name just a few, have been weighing the pros and cons of possible NCAA sanctions for Penn State. NCAA officials said recently they are waiting for answers to questions they’ve posed to Penn State.
Not all pundits are calling for imposing the death penalty, although most acknowledge Penn State pushed legal and moral
boundaries far more seriously than SMU ever did.
But others say the death penalty would deal a crushing economic blow to Penn State that would disproportionately affect players and others who had no part in the alleged wrongdoing involving top administrators’ handling of allegations of sexual abuse by former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
It took more than two decades for SMU to rebound from the NCAA-imposed death penalty in 1987.
As recently as 2010, the SMU scandal was the subject of an ESPN documentary, Pony Excess (get it?), which chronicled the corrupt culture that led SMU boosters to circumvent proper recruiting channels.
The fact that some of the boosters - including then Gov. William P. Clements - were on SMU’s Board of Governors only deepened the m
agnitude of the scandal.
Unlike at Penn State, SMU’s transgressions weren’t confined to a handful of top administrators. Nor was it a simple case of boosters run amok.
SMU players “received side benefits that led directly to the school's punishment and stained reputation,’’ the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Mac Engel noted in December.
A system so enmeshed in campus culture isn’t easily changed, although Engel also noted that “compared to Penn State, what happened at SMU is nothing.’’
“It took SMU decades before its foremost descriptor was not the Death Penalty for its football team,’’ Engel wrote. “Ask the people on The Hill in Dallas -- this kind of thing is every bit a part of a legacy as a national title banner, a thriving Greek life, a presidential library or anything else.’’
In arguing against the death penalty for Penn State, one writer noted that the NCAA itself is “part of the problem’’ because it perpetuates, in the words of last week’s Louis Freeh report, a "culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community."
“You cannot tell me there aren't scores of stomach-turning scandals at big-money, big-conference schools that just haven't seen the light of day. There are others that have, like the...scandal at Notre Dame involving football players and female students, which for curious reasons, find themselves painfully under-discussed, ‘’ said the Baltimore Sun.
“The common problem — from Penn State to Ohio State to Notre Dame — is a system that treats coaches like deities and young players as an uneasy mix of gods and chattel.’’
Lori Stahl covers politics and culture in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @LoriStahl.