By Andy Staples
July 19, 2012

HOOVER, Ala. -- Nick Saban almost immediately wished he hadn't made the suggestion Thursday at SEC Media Days.

"You guys will probably wear my ass out for saying that," the Alabama coach said.

Indeed, when word of Saban's idea for a solution to the question of how to punish Penn State for the cover-up that allowed Jerry Sandusky to continue preying on children hit various social media outlets, some roundly criticized Saban's suggestion to tax tickets to Penn State sporting events and donate the proceeds to an organization that helps child abuse victims. Others liked the idea. Others approved of the concept, but wanted to see it tweaked so it didn't pass along the cost to the rank-and-file fan.

That's why it's healthy that Saban spoke up Thursday. It's important that Bay Area columnist Ray Ratto wrote a piece Saturday that suggested making the football program a "non-profit entity" and using net revenue to fund child abuse aid programs. Both ideas got people talking about tangible, constructive ways to deal with the Penn State issue. It's also important that the Big Ten has tossed out some ideas, obtained by the excellent Brad Wolverton of The Chronicle of Higher Education, including allowing commissioner Jim Delany to fire or suspend coaches or kicking Penn State out of the league. Neither of these are particularly palatable suggestions. Empowering the commissioner to make decisions that should be made at the campus level could lead to abuse. And while it is the prerogative of the Big Ten's members to decide if they want to associate with Penn State, booting the school from the league would punish a lot of innocent athletes as well as researchers who benefit from the Committee on Institutional Cooperation -- the academic consortium that includes the Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago. Still, those ideas could lead to meaningful discussion about ways to ensure accountability when the system breaks down as it did at Penn State.

Since the release of the Freeh Report last week, most calls for action have come from those who either want the football program shut down, the statue of Joe Paterno torn down* or both. People scream for the NCAA to hand down the Death Penalty. They want their pound of flesh, but they have yet to articulate why the benefits of such punishment would outweigh the consequences that would harm people who had nothing to do with the cover-up and offer no punitive action to the actual guilty parties.

*As for the statue, it's a statue. It doesn't matter. It's up to the people at Penn State to decide what they want the world to know they cherish. If they want the world to know they cherish a man who enabled a child rapist, by all means, leave the statue standing. If they would prefer the world didn't believe they support the enabling of child rape, they should remove the statue. It's pretty simple, really.

Saban made an interesting point Thursday. "Everybody's always worried about, what's the punishment?" he said. "The way I try to always look at it is, what's the outcome?... I think you can take any problem and say 'What outcome do we want' and maybe come up with a better solution sometimes of how you move forward. I guess that's a philosophical thing."

So what is the desired outcome here? For football programs to be accountable? Shutting down SMU's program in the '80s didn't stop other schools from paying players. Hammering USC hasn't kept players at other schools from taking money from agents. Nothing about the NCAA's current penalty model suggests it alters undesired behavior in any meaningful way.

What about a constructive rather than destructive solution? What about helping victims of child abuse and helping adults identify the signs of abuse so they might help a child and catch predators? That can be done, but it requires money. Fortunately, money is something the Penn State football program has. According to figures the school submitted to the U.S. Department of Education, Penn State's football program took in $72.7 million in revenue versus $19.5 million in expenses during the 2010-11 school year. Saban's idea would pass along the cost to average fans, so that isn't the perfect solution. Ratto's idea would take money currently used to subsidize non-revenue sports at Penn State and might punish those athletes, so it isn't perfect, either. But both ideas offer excellent jumping off points for a discussion about finding a way to make progress after a truly disgusting tragedy.

The NCAA shutting down the program would interrupt the academic careers of more than 100 players who were in elementary school when Paterno, Penn State president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley agreed they wouldn't contact law enforcement officials about Sandusky. A shutdown also would cost program employees their jobs -- not wealthy coaches, but secretaries, trainers and other support staff who had nothing to do with the cover-up -- and would harm the athletes in other sports who rely on football to pay for their scholarships. A shutdown also would economically cripple some of the people who work in the hotels, cook in the restaurants and drive the taxis in State College.

So why not try to find a solution that doesn't punish those innocent people but still allows for meaningful action? Penn State could immediately put any planned athletic facility improvements on hold and announce it will use football money only to pay for the basic operation of the athletic department and debt service. Beyond that, every penny would go to an existing or new organization that would not only support the victims of child abuse but also help educate the public on the importance of speaking up when something is wrong. Few positives can come out of such a tragedy, but if a program can keep even one child from getting abused, it is an infinitely better solution than blasting Penn State's football program off the face of the earth and harming those who didn't commit the crime. Penn State's leaders might have to tighten the budget in the athletic department, but they could find a way to donate huge sums for such a program. Penn State gave more than $2.6 million in bowl revenue for its new Center for the Protection of Children. It can do better than that. Promise $15 million-$20 million a year for a 10-year period, and the leaders will have to remember how Penn State failed every time they pinch another penny. Donate that kind of money, and the professionals who fight child abuse every day might be able to create meaningful change.

Could some fat-cat donors simply toss in some money and keep business operating as usual? Perhaps, but that's an awful lot of money. More important, it's an awful lot of money that wouldn't otherwise be funding something that could help real people.

The leaders at Penn State, the NCAA and the Big Ten need to consider Saban's advice. Not the tax, necessarily, but the concept of choosing a desired solution before choosing a punishment. What do they want to accomplish here? Do they want to leave a smoking crater? Or do they want to build something that matters?

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