The scandal at Penn State is so outrageous that any level of outrage seems appropriate. And as a result, any level of punishment seems appropriate. Fines. Firings. Scholarship reductions. Frogs. Hail. Boils. Locusts. Take away their first-born. On and on we go, our extremely legitimate outrage morphing into ... well, just more outrage, really. And this leads us to that big, ominous dark cloud that looms whenever a major NCAA scandal hits: The Death Penalty.
Ban the program for a year. Maybe two. That'll show 'em! Football got too big and too important at Penn State, so take it away.
I understand the sentiment. I do. It sounds reasonable. But it would be the wrong decision for the NCAA for so many reasons. Here are a few.
1. There were only a few people directly responsible.
Graham Spanier, Joe Paterno, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz thought they could do whatever they pleased. Their exact motivations are open to interpretation. Maybe they wanted to control their image, or they were drunk on power, or they made one bad decision and kept compounding it with more bad decisions, or just lacked the strength to do what was right instead of what was convenient. I suspect there were a lot of factors, including the outsized role that Paterno played on campus and the sense that this couldn't happen at Penn State, and therefore it wasn't happening at Penn State, despite ample evidence it WAS happening at Penn State.
Hundreds of thousands of people built and sustained the culture that allowed this to happen. That was a fundamental problem at Penn State. But still: Only a few were actually guilty. Should the NCAA ban an entire program for the abhorrent actions of a few people who aren't even there any more? Sorry, but I don't think so.
2. This is not the NCAA's job.
My friend, colleague and eating machine Andy Staples eloquently pointed this out earlier this month: The NCAA exists to enforce NCAA rules. Often, the NCAA doesn't even do that, either through willful disregard, a good-old-administrators network, understaffing or a lack of subpoena power. But when NCAA rules are broken, it is the NCAA's job to determine a penalty. If the NCAA doesn't do that, nobody will.
This is different. Laws were broken. Most of the key perpetrators are either in jail (Jerry Sandusky); in danger of going to jail (former athletic director Tim Curley, former vice president Gary Schultz, and possibly former president Graham Spanier, though Spanier has not been charged); or dead (Paterno). Former assistant coach Mike McQueary, who witnessed Sandusky assaulting one boy and reported it to his bosses, will probably lose his career. They will all be forever associated with this scandal.
NCAA sanctions are largely symbolic -- they are supposed to embarrass a university. Well, in the public's mind, Penn State will mean "child rape scandal" for many years. I think the school is pretty well covered on the public-embarrassment front.
3. It would punish the wrong people.
Banning the program would penalize the current players, who had nothing to do with the scandal. Yes, I know that is true in most cases. But it is especially true here. How can you blow up a major part of their lives because a coach who retired 13 years ago was a pedophile? How does that make sense?
4. It would not accomplish what it is supposed to accomplish.
Penn State needs to change its culture and limit the power of its football coach. This is absolutely true, and we saw more evidence this week, when Penn State students banded together to protect the statue of Paterno outside the stadium, as though it were some sort of religious monument, which I suppose it is.
Banning the program is supposed to make everybody at Penn State re-think their priorities. But I think it would have the opposite effect. It would make Penn State fans feel persecuted. Instead of spending the next two seasons trying to cheer for their football team without making fools of themselves, they would be angry.
Penn State WILL have a football program. That is indisputable. Death penalties are not permanent; they are more like coma penalties. After a year or two, Penn State would snap out of it and field a team again. Rebuilding a community is up to the community, not the NCAA. I believe most Penn Staters realize the depth and gravity of the Sandusky scandal. I believe they want to make their university a better and more open place. And if they don't ... well, that is their fault. The NCAA can't force Penn State to reform itself, any more than the NCAA can force Alabama fans to take a loss to Auburn in stride.
The Death Penalty is not just about a season of silence. The real penalty is that the team can't win. Penn State would have to build a team from nothing after the Death Penalty. Recruiting would be almost impossible. The Nittany Lions probably wouldn't contend in the Big Ten for at least a decade.
Effectively, the NCAA would be saying: "Jail and public humiliation were not punishment enough. We need to take away the ability to win football games." The NCAA would be making football seem more important, not less important.
If you ban a program from competition, you need a little something called "a reason." It can't just be that something horrible happened, because what if something horrible happens somewhere else, as it inevitably will? When Southern Methodist University got hit with the Death Penalty in the 1980s, the reason was simple: SMU continually and systematically broke NCAA rules, even as the school was hit with penalties for breaking those rules. That set a precedent: Repeat violators run the risk of the Death Penalty.
What is the reason for giving Penn State the Death Penalty? I assume most people would say that PSU administrators deliberately ignored unlawful conduct, putting many more people in jeopardy. Well, what happens next year if:
A. A star athlete somewhere else fails a drug test.
B. The athlete's coach decides to ignore the test.
C. The kid takes drugs again, gets behind the wheel of a car and hits a pedestrian.
Would that school get the Death Penalty? I don't think the NCAA wants to set this precedent.
Look: Big-time college sports are a bizarre operation. Coaches make millions while athletes get suspended for selling a jersey. Players go through school without actually going to school. You could argue that it should all be eliminated, and many people have.
But as long as college sports exist, we need to bring some sort of logic to an illogical enterprise. The outrage and disgust at Penn State is justified. Banning the team is not.