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No collective punishment for Penn State football sins

Dave Zirin says the 'death penalty' solves nothing and leaves corrupt NCAA system intact

By Dave Zirin

3:39 PM EDT, July 16, 2012

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Spare me. Spare me the calls to abolish Penn State's football program in the wake of findings by former FBI Chief Louis Freeh that Coach Joe Paterno and other men in power hid the crimes of child rapist/assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. Spare me the NCAA's ominous warning that they "will determine whether any additional action is necessary on its part at the appropriate time." Spare me the self-righteous rage of sports writers who spent decades burnishing the Paterno legend and now rush to tear it all down.

The two most acute examples of this "Paterno revisionism" are ESPN's Rick Reilly and the Washington Post's Sally Jenkins. Mr. Reilly readily admits to being "an idiot," "a stooge," "a sap," and "a fool" for praising Mr. Paterno over the course of decades. Ms. Jenkins, who is normally nobody's fool, has set a land-speed record for media revisionism. After recording Mr. Paterno's last interview, in an article widely criticized for being overly generous to the disgraced coach, Ms. Jenkins now says that she realizes she was conned and has seen the light. Ms. Jenkins writes that Mr. Paterno "wasn't some aging granddad who was deceived, but a canny and unfeeling power broker who put protecting his reputation ahead of protecting children."

I am all for exposing what was fraudulent about Joe Paterno. I am all for calling him out as someone who cared more about his football program than the welfare of endangered children, and have written these very words. I am also in full agreement with Louis Freeh that one of the greatest problems the Sandusky scandal has exposed is "the culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community." Children were raped in the name of this monstrous "culture of reverence."

But the conclusions I draw from this sobering reality are profoundly different than those of Mr. Reilly, Ms. Jenkins and many others. As Mr. Reilly thundered, his breast aflame with newfound religion, "I hope the NCAA gives Penn State the death penalty it most richly deserves. The worst scandal in college football history deserves the worst penalty the NCAA can give. They gave it to [Southern Methodist University] for winning without regard for morals. They should give it to Penn State for the same thing. The only difference is, at Penn State they didn't pay for it with Corvettes. They paid for it with lives. What a chump I was."

I agree with the "chump" part. Mr. Reilly was, as he admits, a chump for confusing journalism with the hagiographic profiles he wrote about Mr. Paterno for all these years. He's also a chump for thinking that shutting down the football program actually helps one child, deters one rape or addresses the problem of our reverence for the sham amateurism and skewed values created by big-time college sports.

Abolishing Penn State football is wrong for a multitude of reasons. Here are merely a few:

1. It's an act of collective punishment. The end of football at Penn State would also mean the end of football revenue underwriting the Penn State athletic department. It would mean the end of every athletic scholarship, every women's sports program and every one of the thousands and thousands of jobs produced by this regional economic engine. None of these people were responsible for Mr. Sandusky's reign of terror and Joe Paterno's criminal complicity. The argument for collective punishment is always morally repugnant, which gets to point two.

2. The only reason to punish so many innocents is to stand with the much-trafficked idea that "all of State College" is somehow complicit in Mr. Sandusky's crimes and the attendant cover-ups. Everyone in State College, this argument goes, was the moral equivalent of now infamous assistant coach Mike McQueary: watching a child get raped and doing nothing. By this logic, however, Mr. Reilly and Ms. Jenkins are accomplices to pedophilia as well. Without their paeans to JoePa, would he have had the stature to cover up Mr. Sandusky's crimes? Should Rick Reilly be fired or even prosecuted for his admitted hagiography? Should Sally Jenkins be held culpable for not challenging Mr. Paterno's cringe-worthy deathbed lie that he'd "never heard of rape and a man"? Of course not. They may have been willing marks, but they were still conned nevertheless. As good as it might feel to point the finger at every last person with a Happy Valley ZIP Code, or every last person that "Godded-up" Joe Paterno, that's not the same as culpability.

The people to blame for enabling Mr. Sandusky in addition to Mr. Paterno are former Athletic Director Tim Curley, former campus security chief Gary Schultz, former school President Graham Spanier, and the Board of Trustees. Other than Mr. Paterno, Messrs. Curley, Spanier and Schultz will almost certainly face civil and criminal trials. The school will also suffer — as it should — with settlement payments that will cripple it for a generation.

Unlike other college football "scandals" at places like SMU or Ohio State, the criminal and civil courts will extract more than a pound of flesh from Penn State. The NCAA, a cartel devoted to little more than ensuring its own reign over an utterly corrupt status quo, should just step back and let the grown-ups do their job, which leads to point three.

3. The NCAA is part of the problem. Once again, Louis Freeh is correct that the problem is a "culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community." But this is the tragic truth at universities across the country. You cannot tell me there aren't scores of stomach-turning scandals at big-money, big-conference schools that just haven't seen the light of day. There are others that have, like the rape scandal at Notre Dame involving football players and female students, which for curious reasons, find themselves painfully under-discussed.

The common problem — from Penn State to Ohio State to Notre Dame — is a system that treats coaches like deities and young players as an uneasy mix of gods and chattel. If the call was to abolish all of college football in the wake of the Penn State scandal and convert all athletic scholarships into academic ones, then let's support this for the collective good. But to punish Penn State for the deep rot that lies in the system? To legitimize the NCAA's bankrupt moral authority to punish evildoers? To think for a moment that the NCAA has any stake in somehow altering this lucrative "culture of reverence"? That's like asking Tim Geithner to clean up Wall Street. It's a fool's errand.

If Ms. Jenkins, Mr. Reilly and others really want to do something other that beat a dead Nittany Lion, they should call for the heads of the real enablers. They should call for the resignation of the Penn State Board of Trustees, including board member Gov. Tom Corbett. They should call for the abolition of the NCAA. They should call for anything other than the destruction of Penn State football: an action that would bring vengeance without justice.

Dave Zirin is the author of "Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love (Scribner)." This article appears courtesy of The Nation magazine/Agence Global news service.