Should Penn State Football Get the Death Penalty?

The stadium scene.
July 13 2012 8:36 AM

Should Penn State Football Get the Death Penalty?

The case for putting the Nittany Lions on the sidelines.

Penn State players
Penn State players before a game on Nov. 12, 2011.

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images.

Louis Freeh’s report on Penn State and Jerry Sandusky argues convincingly that the school’s leadership was blinded by a “culture of reverence for the football program.” Sandusky’s pedophilia was ignored because Joe Paterno and Tim Curley wanted to ignore it, and former Senior Vice President Gary Schultz and ex-President Graham Spanier made sure the coach and athletic director got what they wanted. These men are no longer running the show in State College—Curley is on administrative leave, Schultz resigned, Spanier was fired, and Paterno was let go by the school before passing away in January.* With a new regime in place, should the Nittany Lions football program carry on and help heal the wounds that Penn State’s gridiron obsession created?

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

I think so—but only after it sits on the sidelines for a couple of seasons. The NCAA has imposed the “death penalty” on college sports teams just a handful of times. Most notably, the player-paying SMU football program was banned from competition in 1987, chose to exile itself from the field in 1988 as well, and didn’t get a full complement of scholarships until 1992. Early reports indicate that the NCAA likely won’t go that far with Penn State. The abetting of a child molester is outside the organization’s typical purview, and the school also doesn’t have “repeat violator” status, as it hasn’t been found guilty of major rulebreaking in the last five years.

It’s possible the NCAA won’t go for that legalistic, let-them-off-with-a-warning approach—after all, Penn State perpetrated and ultimately suppressed its inhumane behavior for more than a decade. But the best-case scenario would be for the NCAA—a hypocritical, schoolmarmish organization that claims to stand for honor and decency while perpetuating an unjust system built on college athletes’ free labor—to stand aside and for Penn State to impose severe penalties on itself. The NCAA doesn’t have the moral authority to stand up to the Nittany Lions. The students, faculty, and alumni of Penn State do have that authority, and they should celebrate the opportunity for the school to break away from its touchdown-fueled mission.

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The departures of Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier were necessary but not sufficient to ensure the school’s future integrity. Consider that after Sandusky was indicted on sex crimes charges, Penn State’s general counsel Cynthia Baldwin advised Spanier that it was a bad idea to appoint a body to investigate the school’s athletic programs. “If we do this, we will never get rid of this group,” Baldwin said. Even after it became clear that athletic department officials allowed Sandusky’s predation to continue, the school’s top legal mind was worried that Penn State’s sports teams would be subject to too much oversight.

That shocking attitude—we sheltered a child molester for a decade, but that doesn’t mean we should answer to anyone—makes it seem like benching football is the only way to help Penn State help itself. On Twitter on Thursday, Penn State alum (and occasional Slate contributor) Jason Fagone listed reasons why the school’s football team shouldn’t get obliterated: It would destroy every other athletic team that Nittany Lions football finances, it could force Penn State to drop out of the academically prestigious Big Ten, it could potentially decrease state appropriations. Considering Penn State had its second-best fundraising year ever in 2011-2012, bringing in $209 million, I don’t believe those dire predictions would come to pass. But even in the worst possible world, Penn State would do itself a favor by figuring out how to survive without football lucre. When you can plausibly argue that the eradication of a sports team would destroy an academic institution, that’s a signal the relative importance of sports and academics need to be recalibrated.

Penn Staters would do well to ponder recent events at Florida A&M. In November, around the same time Sandusky was indicted, drum major Robert Champion was beaten to death on a bus as part of a band hazing ritual. A lawsuit filed by Champion’s parents alleges that, on account of other hazing episodes, the school’s band director was advised to suspend the Marching 100 three days prior to their son’s death. Why wasn’t the band taken off the field? According to the lawsuit, Florida A&M administrators were concerned that punishing the school’s showcase group would hurt the school’s ability to raise money.

After months of pressure, Florida A&M President James H. Ammons resigned this week. The Marching 100 has also been suspended by the school until at least 2013. That seems like the right penalty for Penn State football as well.

If Penn State did decide to have the football team take a few years off, they would still be morally obligated to honor the players’ scholarships if they chose to stay. They would also likely be compelled to the NCAA to allow them to transfer without penalty to other schools. There would be an instant feeding frenzy—SMU’s players were released to seek playing time elsewhere on a Wednesday in 1987; by Thursday, close to 100 coaches had descended on Dallas—and the Nittany Lions’ program would be forced to rebuild itself from the ground up.

The temporary abolition of the SMU program was likened by the president of the University of Florida to a nuclear bomb. But that analogy says more about college officials’ capacity for melodrama than it does about what happened at SMU. Yes, the school’s football program lost its luster for decades, but the penalty also stamped out a corrupt administration and campus culture that valued the success of Mustangs football above all else. And there is life after death: Twenty-five years later after the nuclear bomb, the SMU program made its third consecutive bowl game in 2012, tying the school record.

Shuttering Beaver Stadium for two years would take Penn State football down a peg. It would also punish loads of hard-working athletes who have done nothing wrong, as well as all the fans who live and die with the Nittany Lions. But that will be a far better result than the alternative—allowing a pedophile-sheltering athletic department that was bent on self-preservation to succeed in having itself preserved. If Penn State football carries on this fall with a new coach and those old white-and-blue uniforms, then the worldviews of Curley and Schultz and Spanier and Paterno will prevail. Though all four men lost their jobs, their mission to protect Penn State football at all costs will win out in the end.

Correction, July 13, 2012: This article originally misstated the status of Penn State athletic director Tim Curley. He wasn’t fired and he didn’t resign under pressure. Rather, he is on administrative leave. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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