NCAA sends wrong message with Penn State sanctions

Penn State deserved to be punished. There is no questioning that.

But the NCAA’s unprecedented sanctioning of the football team – doled out by president Mark Emmert himself – solves nothing. If anything, it reinforces the wrong message: that football matters.


In case somehow you missed it – perhaps you were off doing something useful, like pushing for gun control – the Nittany Lions won’t be playing in a bowl game for the next four years. The university, my alma mater, will pay a $60 million fine. New coach Bill O’Brien won’t have his full allotment of scholarships to use; he’ll only be able to grant 15 new ones (down from 25) per year starting in 2013-14, and a total of 65 (down from 85) per season for four years starting with the 2014 season. Current players will be free to transfer to another school without sitting out a year.

There’s also the issue of “vacating” victories, one of the NCAA’s silliest ways of wagging its finger. In the official record books (wherever they are), Penn State now has not won a football game since November 1997. That wipes 111 wins from Joe Paterno’s previous total of 409, dropping him from first to 12th on the all-time wins list.


Only a truly tone-deaf organization hell bent on repeatedly affirming its own importance would bother to try to literally re-write history. It has never worked. Reggie Bush still won the Heisman. John Calipari still led three teams to the Final Four. Paterno still won more college football games than any other Division I coach.

While the NCAA did take some proactive steps to force needed change at Penn State – the school will be under probation for five years, and will be forced to prove it is taking steps to fix a football culture that conspired to conceal the actions of serial child molester and former assistant Jerry Sandusky – the overall message was resounding: misbehave, and we’ll hit you where we think it hurts most.

To which I think any rational person should say, who really cares what Penn State football does for the next few years? How could it possibly matter? And what would it have to do with anything that happened over the last decade and a half?

I find it hard to believe that Penn State football fans were spending their summers the usual way, debating which quarterback is worse or decrying the use of a Nike symbol on the jersey. Everyone who has tailgated in some far-flung cow pasture barely within walking distance of Beaver Stadium must feel a deep sense of sorrow following the Sandusky trial. Regardless of whether you believe there’s some doubt about the role Joe Paterno played in a cover-up of Sandusky’s heinous crimes – and many do – the fact that those things happened in the football team’s showers will cast a pall on Saturdays in the valley for years to come. Anyone who doesn’t feel that way already won’t be persuaded to find common human decency or much needed extra IQ points just because the NCAA wrecked the football team. (


Emmert came to the NCAA throne seeking a signature decision to mark him as a man who cares about the sanctity of so-called amateurism in college athletics. His predecessor, Myles Brand, had ousted Bob Knight from a school where Bob Knight had to that point done what he wanted. And so whenever someone had the temerity to point out to Dr. Brand that big-time college athletics was anything but the idyllic crossing of studies and sports he purported it to be, he always could lean on the fact that he'd once stood up for some bland definition of moral, ethical behavior in college sports. And now, it appears Emmert feels he can do the same.

But if he is of the honest belief that hurting Penn State's chances of winning football games for a few years somehow solidified his role as the true enforcer of what the NCAA stands for, he has apparently missed the whole point entirely. The people of Penn State needed no extra scolding, no re-enforcement of the lessons learned. They better than anyone should now be equipped to avoid the hero worship that leads to reckless leadership. They, of all people, should look to their behemoth stadium and shiny facilities as symbols of misplaced priorities.

So for Emmert to make an example of Penn State serves only to misconstrue what's really going on here. The acts perpetrated by Sandusky were abnormally abhorrent, but a top-level athletic program closing ranks and doing not what is right but what helps it win and grow is hardly new. Or unusual.

Nor is it the sign of evil or even willfully negligent coaches and administrators in all cases. It is clearly the product of a broken system, one in which the two most popular (and lucrative) sports have out-grown a place on campus. The business model no longer makes much sense. It's the equivalent of the most sanctimonious church running the most raucous speakeasy out of its basement at this point. And Emmert, who is well-paid and well-regarded because he heads said church, can't help but enjoy the money and fame that comes with both sides of his duplicitous role. 


The NCAA has long punished the wrong people.  A group of young men who’d endured the difficult times at Penn State, no doubt become friends with teammates and other students and, most importantly, began their academic pursuits will now be forced to scatter or play for a diminished program. All because of decisions made by Penn State leaders when those players weren’t old enough to first learn how to tackle.

NCAA spokespeople like to say this is inevitable; if a school allows a coach to misbehave, it must suffer some consequence so as to dissuade imitators. Yes, the coach is usually gone and hardly hurt by the punishment. Sure, yanking scholarships merely means that the sort of fringe athletes – the special teams guys, the practice squad warriors – who actually want to play ball and study will suddenly be without a scholarship to their chosen school. But something must be done. Justice! Justice! Justice!

And then, after a few difficult years, the program returns to where it was, another cog in an enormous economic engine that so often thwarts the stated goals of any reputable institute of higher learning. You can be sure that this will happen with the Nittany Lions. The foundation of the narrative is already being poured; the true Penn State fans will stick with this team through its darkest days, you’ll hear, and winning – with honor – will be all the more satisfying when it returns. (This happened with Kentucky basketball years ago, and Indiana basketball more recently.)

And it will be. Except for the part where Penn State is once again serving as a minor league team for the NFL, employing players paid with “scholarships” that too often end up being worth less than they should. How many hyper-competitive athletes dedicating 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 hours to football actually have time to fully engage in their studies? And how many aren’t pushed into some mushy major consisting of cake classes? 

The whole system of college football (and men’s basketball, for that matter) is broken. Having multi-million dollar corporation/teams integrated with an athletic department otherwise engaged in true amateur competition simply does not work. Having those teams try to mesh with a university, what with all those professors and administrators who might have their own set of demands on “student-athletes,” is untenable. Though it would require sea change, there needs to be a drastic adjustment to the way young athletes in these two sports are able to train for their possible profession. Forcing them to attend college – and forcing those colleges to operate minor league teams -- is unfair at this point.


As I’ve written before, it didn’t faze me to discover just how rotten the culture at Penn State was.

But it has come time to point out that Penn State is the perfect protagonist in a fable with broader lessons. It was the school that too often was portrayed as being most above reproach, as a glossy testament to the successful merger of high-level athletics and scholarly pursuit. Its hard fall has shaken an alumni base of 500,000 and repulsed the common sports fan everywhere.

And it has also allowed Penn Staters a chance to turn focus away from football. To point out that, even if you went to every single game and spent all your lunches debating whether Paterno preferred the half-back dive or off-tackle play, football was such a minor part of your experience at college. Yes, fans and students took pride in a successful football team. They certainly puffed their chests out when they thought Joe Paterno did things the "right way."
But football was a diversion, Paterno a distant, charismatic figurehead that might as well have been a movie character for all our actual interaction with him. The real work being done at Penn State happens during the week and is carried out by thousands upon thousands of professors and advisers.

That any college might endeavor to be "known for its football team" or to attract students based on a few games each fall is sad.

The lesson Emmert needed to send was not that misbehaving would cause you to suffer more losses. That, after what happened to those boys, shouldn't even be in the discussion. This was bigger than what happens on the field.

The lesson should have been this: if your football coach is making four or five or six times the president, and his top assistant is making double what your top professors get, your institution has gone astray. If the president does not actually have the ability to fire the football coach -- as Penn State's Graham Spanier did not, and other presidents currently do not -- something is wrong.

If your school is in any way dependent on finding its pride in scores of intercollegiate competition, if students who are exceptionally athletic are held to a different standard in the classroom and thereby given a less effective education, if a big chunk of the fundraising your school does aims to add another whirlpool to a locker room, it's time to re-evaluate.

Emmert actually said the right things: "One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail, indeed, too big to even challenge. The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by the value of hero worship and winning at all costs. All involved in intercollegiate athletics must be watchful that programs and individuals do not overwhelm the values of higher education."

Exactly. So why punish Penn State by making it less able to win football games? That shouldn't matter. The $60 million fine -- to be set aside for "external programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims" -- was warranted, and should be doubled or tripled. Make Penn State refocus its priorities. And then push others to do the same. Send a message that winning and losing is a moot point, that growing big, powerful programs is outside the mission of any NCAA member. 

Someone else can handle the task of training elite, soon-to-be-millionaire athletes in football and men's basketball. Universities can be known for teaching students, a few of whom happen to play football each Saturday.