The NCAA handed down the stiffest non-death-penalty sanctions in its history today when it crippled Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky crimes and subsequent cover-up by key members of university including president, athletics director, and football coach Joe Paterno.
The punishment comes down to this: No postseason for four years, significant reductions in scholarships over that same time, and roughly $60 million in fines. It's undeniably stiff.
But was it the right thing to do? One of the things I'm absolutely fascinated by this morning is how various smart people are finding themselves at complete opposite ends of the spectrum. Spencer Hall says, "In response to a petty tyrant at the center of his own cult of personality protecting a pedophile, the organization will simply insert another petty tyranny. They will do this even though there is no fixing the unfixable, or predicting the unthinkable," while Dan Wolken says, "credit the NCAA and Emmert for understanding that the Penn State community needed to be grabbed by its collective lapel and shaken until its priorities became properly aligned."
In that sense, I think the NCAA was in a no-win situation here:
The NCAA's choices were overstep bounds and promote decency or stand back and look soft on child rape. What would you have done? #exactly— Andy Glockner (@AndyGlockner) July 23, 2012
There's lots of talk about whether the NCAA president Mark Emmert should even have the authority to do this, but let's set aside that conversation for a minute. If you were Emmert, and you had the authority to do whatever you felt was right, what would you have done? Here's my take.
As teacher, I'm always more concerned with moving things forward, rather than looking back. Punishment for the sake of punishment rarely seems like the best course of action to me. And in that sense, I agree with Hall:
I would instead like them to admit what they're doing: stabbing a corpse, and then demanding some public recognition of their ersatz bravery. I would like them to admit they are seizing a horrific moment in time to advance their own fartgassy agenda, and then demanding credit for it. They will burn an effigy after the courts have already done the hard work of humanity.
(As an aside, that's definitely the first time I've ever seen someone use the the made-up word "fartgassy" paired with "agenda." I tip my hat, sir.)
In my mind, any punishment levied for anything needs to serve some sort of future purpose. When you put Sandusky away for the rest of his life, you aren't just punishing him for his past crimes -- you're acknowledging that he poses a threat to society and you're making sure he can never rape another child again. Even when I punish my children, I'm seeking to inflict some sort of metaphorical pain to act as a deterrent to future misdeeds.
But these sanctions? I'm not so sure it's not, as Hall says, simply piling on. Exactly what will this do to prevent something like this from happening again at Penn State? Or anywhere else, for that matter? As Bomani Jones said this morning, "If Spanier, Paterno et al were willing to violate the Clery Act -- which endangered Penn State's ability to grant federal financial aid to students -- you think they would have cared about the possibility of NCAA losing lots of scholarships and missing a few bowls?"
These sanctions have been labeled as "making an example out of Penn State." But let's be honest -- do you think anyone else at another institution is going to be thinking, "Hmmmm, should I cover up [INSERT HEINOUS CRIME]? Well, I might be risking four years of the postseason and $60 million ...."
This needs to be repeated: for everyone suggesting that football was at the core of this, for everyone suggesting for an instant that something could have predicted this, and that a precedent could be set, you literally do not understand humanity or the rare horror of something truly evil. People will sell themselves to authorities far cheaper and less impressive than a corrupt, morally bankrupt football legend. Subordinates cover for regional managers at car rental places for worse, and do so for $50,000 a year without benefits.
Give someone three cents worth of power and they will ask for an advance of an entire dollar. Often, they get far more than that in return even without asking, and in the cases of legitimate evil, simply stand by the wayside and let it happen.
Sometimes, you just have to treat something for what it is: A truly unique happenstance. Yes, I know I wrote that this "could happen anywhere," therefore it would seem that I'm saying it's not entirely unique. I suppose that's somewhat true. But saying it could happen anywhere and that everyone needs to guard against it is different than it did happen somewhere. This particular situation is unique.
So, if this giant hammer from the NCAA likely isn't going to deter future malfeasance on the part of other member institutions, what's the proper course of action?
My solution would have been this: One-year death penalty, same financial penalties.
You might see this as unnecessarily punitive as well. But this isn't simply about saying, "Nope, can't have any football for a year!" No, forcing Penn State to shut down its football program gives everyone time to distance itself from the scandal and start anew. As part of the sanctions, I would require a demonstrated restructuring of the athletics department as it relates to football, including changed oversight structures, mechanisms for reporting observed crimes, institution of "good samaritan" policies for those who report crimes, etc. Allow them to use the time off to fix the mechanisms that allowed this to happen in the first place.
Some would say that's already been done by the removal of the four key players in the cover up. I'd say that's almost certainly naive, but even if it isn't, the year off would give the university time to get its ducks in a row and prove that this really was the result of the actions of a handful of morally bankrupt people. Fine.
The financial penalties are wholly appropriate as they are. Using that money to support groups that work to mitigate the effects of child rape and molestation is worthy and significant.
Of course, none of any of these penalties are fair. I'll save my own personal rant against our country's obsession with "fairness" for another day, but I will say this: Any punishment is going to be unfair to someone who doesn't deserve it. Of course punishments should seek to mitigate the collateral damage as much as possible, but it can't be the driving force in the decision. I believe a one-year death penalty would do both.
I realize taking the year off from football would damage local businesses that depend on the economic impact of football games. I also realize that taking $60 million out of the athletics budget -- along with the roughly $15 million in lost revenue from the year off -- is going to have an untold effect on the non-revenue sports at Penn State. I would suggest that perhaps the NCAA could have mitigated that effect with loans, or some other creative solution.
But I would also suggest that after the one-year hit, this sets Penn State up to thrive in the future, which I think is perfectly OK. Beyond failing to act as a deterrent, nobody benefits from having a half-handicapped Penn State football program stumble around for a decade or more, and it certainly doesn't do anything for the victims. I don't want to speak for them, but I have to believe that after being compensated monetarily (which they will be, to the tune of at least tens of millions of dollars), they would take the most comfort in knowing that every precaution is being taken to make sure this doesn't happen again. And if they do take pleasure in watching the football program crumble, I'd suggest they are like the family of a murder victim who revels in the execution of their loved one's killer -- the bitterness and unforgiveness are actually continuing to hurt themselves, rather than the other way around. But I suppose that's a conversation for another day, too.
Ultimately, these are hard question to wrestle with. And the possibility remains that Emmert did a good job:
Criticism of NCAA's all over the too-harsh/too-lenient map, increasing the likelihood they got it about right.— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) July 23, 2012
So, what do you think? How would you have handled it?
Penn State Scandal: NCAA Imposes Major Sanctions on Football Team (via sbnation)