Why the NCAA’s Punishment Was the Best Thing for Penn State

The stadium scene.
July 23 2012 6:17 PM

Penn State’s Second Chance

The NCAA’s punishment is for the best. The school can prove it is a university, not a football program.

Drew Astorino #28 of the Penn State Nittany Lions takes the field before the start of thier game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Beaver Stadium on September 10, 2011 in State College, Pennsylvania.
Penn State will have football, but a postseason ban and loss of scholarships will diminish its profile for the foreseeable future

Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images.

Some important things happened today at Pennsylvania State University. A nurse treated a broken bone at the medical campus in Hershey. A student learned how to use differential equations in a classroom in Erie. In the Paterno Library, the center of the University Park campus in State College, a librarian helped a student do research for a history paper.

Meanwhile, over in Indianapolis, NCAA President Mark Emmert announced punitive measures against Penn State’s football program in the wake of the devastating accounts of malfeasance by university leaders and coach Joe Paterno in dealing with revelations that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had raped children for years—sometimes in the school’s athletic facilities.

Emmert fined the university $60 million, banned it from postseason play for four years, cut the number of football scholarships it may offer, and vacated all wins since 1998, when Paterno first learned of Sandusky’s crimes.

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The NCAA penalties could have been worse. The program could have suffered the “death penalty,” the cancellation of the entire football program for a number of years. That’s happened to just one other football team. Southern Methodist University committed such egregious recruiting and player-paying violations in the 1980s that the NCAA zapped its storied and successful football program for 1987 season. The program has never recovered. But SMU has. That’s because a university does not have to be its football team and vice-versa.

Some Penn State fans took to Twitter in the aftermath of the announcement to complain about the perceived injustice of the sanctions. And the Paterno family issued a statement critical of the NCAA: "That the President, the Athletic Director and Board of Trustees accepted this unprecedented action by the NCAA without requiring a full due process hearing before the Committee on Infractions is an abdication of their responsibilities and a breach of their fiduciary duties to the University and the 500,000 alumni,” the statement said. “Punishing past, present, and future students of the University because of Sandusky's crimes does not serve justice. This is not a fair or thoughtful action; it is a panicked response to the public's understandable revulsion at what Sandusky did.”

The Paterno family is upset about the way that the revered coach, who died on Jan. 22, became  the object of derision almost instantly in the wake of the report by former FBI Louis Freeh. The Freeh report took Paterno to task for failing to alert law enforcement about Sandusky’s crimes and colluding with the athletic director, a vice president, and President Graham Spanier to cover up the crimes. None of these adults exhibited any overt concern for the children Sandusky hurt, at least according to the evidence Freeh outlined in the report.

Emily Bazelon agrees that the NCAA is punishing “past, present, and future students ” with its decision today. “The NCAA is coming down not on the individual wrongdoers, but on every Penn State fan,” she wrote on Slate today. But did the NCAA really punish all these students and alums through its sanctions? Not at all. Having to watch bad football for 10 years (the amount of time it’ll probably take the Penn State program to recover and recruit another top team) is hardly hardship. They do get to attend one of the greatest universities in the world, one that serves 94,000 students across 24 campuses. That ain’t nothing. In fact, I would bet every young person struggling to get into an overenrolled math class at Miami Dade College (161,000 students, with many thousands more left out for lack of funding) would gladly trade places with any Penn State student who feels unfairly punished by these sanctions.

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