Editor's note: This article has been updated to correctly reflect who investigated the Penn State pedophilia case. The school's board of trustees hired an independent investigator. The Sun regrets the error. 

"Seven football players arrested on sex-related charges" — the headline in the New York Times made me think that here's another case of football players behaving badly toward women. But the story went in another direction.


The charges had to do with extreme hazing that included male on male sexual assault, in the football locker room of Sayerville Memorial High School in New Jersey. Sayerville has a football team that in its success is comparable to that of Penn State's during the Joe Paterno era.

In an eerie resemblance to what happened to tarnish the reputation of Paterno and Penn State, one player at Sayerville was so upset by the violence he witnessed that he went to the police. He did the right thing.

The Sayerville police reported the story to the Middlesex County prosecutor and the district school superintendent. The prosecutor did the right thing and brought charges against the seven accused players. The superintendent, in his desire to look decisive, did the wrong thing. He canceled the football team's remaining games.

The superintendent could have ended the season for the seven accused, but he went far beyond that and ended the season for the other 80 players on the team. As a result, college scholarships for the seniors on the team are threatened (Penn State has already reportedly rescinded a scholarship offer to a star running back). Recruiters who might have been interested in the seniors will not have the opportunity to see them play in important end-of-season games.

Sayerville's citizens, many of whom in one way or another are dependent on high school football, also will be hurt. Local businesses will suffer losses by not having the customers they anticipated. Other citizens will be discomfited by the wipe-out of games their emotional systems need.

The broad sweep of the superintendent's action bothers me. I don't think his actions would have been nearly so severe if it were not for the closeness of the Sayerville events to recent issues elsewhere in the country. The cancellation of games for the whole team seems indicative of an unfortunate tendency afoot in America to assume collective guilt.

I'm seeing a growing unwillingness to allow the law to take its course. People seem to prefer immediate punitive action to the drawn-out process of legal resolutions, in which the facts of cases are carefully brought forward and subjected to scrupulous scrutiny. When a hot issue makes the headlines these days, passion for a kind of mob justice arises.

At Penn State, it wasn't enough that the pedophilia case against Jerry Sandusky was making its way through the judicial system. Public contempt for Mr. Sandusky made the NCAA think it had better get into the act even though Mr. Sandusky had resigned as a coach several years earlier. The school's board of trustees hired an independent investigator to look into the matter, after which it imposed a fine of $60 million on the university, placed a four-season ban on the football team's participation in postseason play and made the team vacate all its victories between 1998 and 2011.

When the state judicial process was completed, the former assistant coach was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years and a maximum of 60 years in prison. But who was punished by the fine of $60 million sought by the NCAA? For one, thousands of Penn State students who had absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Sandusky's crimes or their coverup. What did the players who joined the team after Mr. Sandusky was gone have to do with his pedophilia? Nothing! Even if the great coach Joe Paterno had suspicions about Mr. Sandusky, should all of his good work for the university have been negated?

Another hot issue in America today is rape, male on female. Because of miscarriages of justice in the past, we are now at the point where, especially on college campuses, accusations are treated like jury verdicts. Thus, in recent days there has been an outcry against the movie "Gone Girl," in which the wife is shown to make false allegations against her husband. A movie critic for The Guardian, Joan Smith, dismisses the film, because everyone knows women do not make false allegations. In effect, Ms. Smith is saying that no woman's claim of being a victim should ever be brushed off. Whatever the woman claims happened, happened. The man is responsible. Arrest him!

We are too willing to accept overkill. We are too eager to accept the broad sweep and collective guilt. Life is more complicated than we sometimes want to acknowledge. Justice depends on not yielding to the passion of the moment.

Paul Marx lives in Towson and is professor emeritus at the University of New Haven. His email is PPPMARX@comcast.net.

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