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News Opinion Editorial

NCAA's Penn State sanctions aren't enough

The NCAA this morning announced stiff penalties on the Penn State football program, acting with unprecedented swiftness in response to a report detailing the repeated failure of officials there to act appropriately in response to long-time assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's serial child sexual abuse. The football team, already reeling from the scandal and the firing and subsequent death of legendary coach Joe Paterno, faces a four-year ban on post-season appearances, a $60 million fine and the vacating of all its victories from 1998-2011, the time period when officials knew about Mr. Sandusky's crimes but failed to stop them. If the NCAA's aim was to make the Penn State team uncompetitive in the near future, it will likely succeed. But if the goal was to tackle the real problem — a culture in which the university was totally subservient to the football program — it didn't go far enough.

Mr. Sandusky was convicted in June on 45 counts of child abuse. He used his position in the Penn State Athletic Department and in a charity he founded for troubled youth to develop relationships with the victims, and in some cases, the abuse took place in Penn State facilities. A report this month by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh found that Mr. Paterno first learned of concerns about Mr. Sandusky's behavior in 1998 and that he closely monitored an internal investigation into the matter. An eyewitness to another incident of abuse in 2001 told Mr. Paterno about it, and Mr. Paterno informed other university officials, but none of them reported it to outside authorities or took any effective action. What's worse, the decision not to report, according to Mr. Freeh's investigation, was influenced by Mr. Paterno.

The Freeh report details a university culture in which the football program and Mr. Paterno in particular were treated with such reverence that neither the university president nor the trustees exercised anything resembling effective oversight. During Mr. Paterno's years as coach, he had developed the football team into the defining feature of Penn State, and he was worshiped not just for his record on the field but also the evident righteousness of the program. His recruiting was above-board, and his players graduated at a relatively high rate. Moreover, he was a consummate booster of the university and a major fundraiser and donor for its academic programs. It's not for nothing that the library is named for him. Those good deeds are far outweighed by the evil that was perpetrated in his midst. But the belief in the Joe Paterno myth prevented him or any of those he supposedly worked for from realizing it.

Penn State President Rod Erickson this weekend ordered the removal of a statue of Mr. Paterno outside the university's Beaver Stadium. He said it has become "a source of division and an obstacle to healing." That is a good, if symbolic, first step toward extirpating a culture that had grown to choke out everything else the university should have stood for. The effect of the NCAA's sanctions will likely be to merely accelerate the process of breaking down the football program so that it might be rebuilt in a humbler image. The football team was already reeling, and now that the NCAA has decided to allow its players to transfer to other schools, it will likely be diminished even further. Under the circumstances, the ban on post-season play may be redundant.

Much of the speculation before the NCAA's announcement centered on whether it would impose the so-called "death penalty" — a total ban on football at Penn State for a season or more. Such an action would not have been out of place, given that the seriousness of what went on there is in an entirely different category from the association's usual business of policing recruiting violations and the like. But it's not clear that such a penalty would have accomplished what is really necessary.

Mr. Sandusky's horrific crimes happened to occur at Penn State, but the skewed dynamic that allowed them to go on for so long without effective action by the university's administration or trustees is one that is present to one degree or another at big-time football schools across the nation. At a time when the NCAA has largely been shut out of the major business of college football, from the realignment of conferences to the development of a post-season playoff, imposing the death penalty would have made the association look tough. But if the NCAA wants to make sure nothing like this ever happens again, it needs to do more than that. Rather than closing the matter, the association needs to make this penalty the first step toward reining in a sport that has grown too rich and too powerful.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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