It’s Time for the NCAA to End Its Pointless Punishment of the Penn State Football Program

The stadium scene.
Aug. 28 2014 4:29 PM

Down With the Penn State Penalty

It’s time for the NCAA to end its pointless punishment of the Nittany Lions football program.

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That accounts for the retributive theory. What about deterrence? The revelation that such a horrible thing happened at Penn State should have been deterrence enough for anyone with a shred of humanity. Then again, in February, the University of Connecticut released an independent report that found the university waited years before it properly investigated sexual abuse allegations against a music professor. One of the accusations against the professor came in a letter sent one month after Sandusky’s arrest that specifically compared Connecticut’s lack of response at that point to Penn State’s handling of Sandusky’s crimes. Yet neither the head of the Music Department nor the dean of the School of Fine Arts reported the letter for almost two more years.

It’s obviously absurd to expect that every university in America will now, as a consequence of the Sandusky case, report every instance of sexual abuse—that’s just not how the world works. But perhaps the Penn State sanctions did provide a broader deterrent. Professor Kelly suggested that if we “think about [the sanctions] in terms of a deterrence against actions that offend certain standards of decency, as a symbol upholding minimum standards of acceptable behavior, it makes more sense.” That is, by coming down hard on the most heinous crime that it will ever confront, the NCAA could show its members that it is serious about, as the NCAA’s Consent Decree in the Penn State case says, “serv[ing] as positive moral models for students.”

In reality, the NCAA has an exceedingly poor track record in this area. Three months before Sandusky’s arrest, Yahoo published a detailed account of flagrant violations of NCAA rules at the University of Miami. The NCAA completely bungled the investigation—admitting that the defense attorney for the main witness against the University of Miami was on the NCAA payroll. After Miami voluntarily sat out two postseasons, the NCAA eventually took away nine football and three basketball scholarships over three years, suspended the basketball coach for five games, and told Miami to fine and suspend coaches who send impermissible texts to recruits. Similarly, in 2012, the NCAA investigated allegations of academic fraud at the University of North Carolina—misdeeds at the heart of the group’s mission—and imposed a punishment so toothless that the NCAA is now reinvestigating the same charges at the same school.

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Individual schools aren’t moral models either. Just last season, after star Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was accused of rape, a damning New York Times investigation illustrated that there was “virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university.” In this case, the school clearly prioritized football glory, not at all deterred by the sanctions against Penn State. The University of Oklahoma recently lost an appeal to the NCAA, wherein the school asked that a player accused of assaulting a woman while at the University of Missouri be allowed to join the Sooners football team without sitting out for a year. (There were no criminal charges in Missouri because, as the victim told police, she feared the backlash that would result from accusing a star football player.)

Oklahoma’s head football coach will make $5.25 million this year. ESPN will pay $7.3 billion over the next 12 years to broadcast the college football postseason. The same “football first culture” the NCAA decried at Penn State exists at universities across the country precisely because football makes lots of money for lots of people. The NCAA ultimately has no interest in changing this culture.

But what if the culture of football isn’t the whole problem? University of Oregon psychology professor Jennifer Freyd, in her book Blind to Betrayal, calls Penn State’s reaction to Sandusky’s crimes “institutional blindness.” Freyd told me that when dealing with something traumatic, turning a blind eye “is a natural reaction, and it takes effort to counter this.” It can and does happen everywhere, with or without football. Freyd said the best way to address institutional blindness is to focus on prevention, to “take steps to make it less likely.”

Which brings us to rehabilitation. We dole out punishment for retribution and deterrence, but also to put bad actors on a better path. Last year the NCAA recognized that Penn State had made progress—not because Penn State students and fans changed their view of the importance of football, but because the university agreed to implement recommendations from the Freeh Report. In her book, Freyd encourages institutions to educate their communities about preventing and reporting crimes, and to create systems that support victims and whistleblowers. These are precisely the reforms that Penn State is implementing. Given that, continuing to target the football team serves no real purpose.

The Penn State scandal was so horrific that it gave the NCAA the chance, in a highly visible situation, to take a public stand against the worst kind of human behavior. While it has been unable to enforce its own rules, it could at least do something when a university provided extensive evidence against itself and was in no position to object to any sanctions.

Since the sanctions were announced, the NCAA has shown that this is absolutely the only circumstance under which it can be at all effectual. Two years ago there were some who wondered why the NCAA was getting involved, given the criminal justice system’s ability to address the crimes. The reason the NCAA did something was because, two years ago, it would’ve looked very bad to do nothing. Now, it has a chance to make a reasonable decision, to look at what’s happening at Penn State in 2014 and recognize that the sanctions no longer serve a purpose. Given the current state of the NCAA, reasonableness is probably the best that we can hope for.

Chris Laskowski is a writer and editor in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter.

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