The hits just keep coming for Penn State University as the fallout over the Jerry Sandusky child sex scandal continues.
The latest blow to the chin for the Nittany Lion football program came today when a much-anticipated report on the Sandusky scandal was released by former FBI director Louis Freeh.
The report didn’t include any new earth-shattering information, but reminded us all of what we already knew: that Penn State shamelessly worked to cover up Sandusky’s sordid misdeeds for over a decade, and the coverup at the university went all the way to the top.
The Freeh report, and the NCAA’s recent revelation that it is entering the fray, has folks once again asking: what will — and should — happen to Penn State and its football program as a result of the coverup scandal?
We know what happened to the individuals involved: Sandusky lost his freedom, the four chief players in the coverup — university president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz, athletic director Tim Curley and late football coach Joe Paterno — lost their jobs (Schultz and Curley have also been indicted on criminal charges), and Paterno’s legacy as one of football’s greatest coaches ever, once thought tarnished by the Sandusky scandal, will probably wind up destroyed.
But the question of what happens to the university won’t be answered anytime soon. While we await an answer, here’s what should happen: there should be no football in Happy Valley this fall.
No games. No practice. No recruiting.
Give the Penn State “brand” — which university officials were willing to protect at the expense of innocent children who were being victimized by the monster the university employed for the better part of a half-century — two or three years off. Then let the university rebuild itself from the ground up.
It’s the only outcome that can close to meeting the definition of justice in the aftermath of the most egregious scandal that college sports — sports at any level, for that matter — has ever known. If Penn State wanted to send a clear message that it is building an “iron curtain,” as one former coach put it today, between the future and what we now know to be a sick, ugly past, it would sentence itself to the so-called “death penalty” of its football program.
But that isn’t likely to happen. Nor is it likely to be forced upon the university.
The NCAA has already been criticized for getting involved in what some folks consider to be strictly a legal matter. Sandusky’s actions were non-athletic misconduct, they reason, therefore the NCAA has no business getting involved.
I’m usually the one hollering foul when the NCAA oversteps its bounds. I was critical of the NCAA’s decision to issue a show-cause penalty against former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl (and, since then, the NCAA show-caused former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel). My reasoning then was that the NCAA should not be allowed to bully a school into firing their coach by threatening heightened sanctions.
But the reality is that the Penn State football program should be severely punished for what happened. The courts can’t make that happen. They can hold those involved criminally liable, and prosecute them accordingly, and they can hold the university liable for civil penalties. But they can’t punish the program itself. The NCAA can.
And that’s makes the NCAA’s involvement a necessary evil.
Here’s the reality: every single top-level administrator with oversight of the football program was implicitly involved in covering up the abuse of children for more than a decade. We know now that the president, vice president, athletic director and head football coach knew that Sandusky was abusing children as early as the late 1990s. The Freeh report even implicates the university’s board of trustees to a certain extent.
Who knows how many children were raped by Sandusky in the years after graduate assistant football coach Michael McQueary discovered Sandusky in the shower with one of his victims because Penn State officials were more concerned with the integrity of their football program than with the safety and welfare of children. These men didn’t just cover up Sandusky’s wrongdoing; they enabled it by continuing to give Sandusky access to university facilities, where some of the abuse took place. And the abuse continued for another decade because nobody — not the university president, not the vice president, not the athletic director, not the head football coach, not an assistant coach, not the head of the university police — was willing to jeopardize the integrity of the program in order to put a stop to a pedophile’s abuse of children.
This coverup is unconscionable. And the program should suffer as a result.
It has been said that punishing the program is a disservice to the student-athletes currently on football scholarship at Penn State, because those players had nothing to do with the scandal and all the key figures in the scandal are no longer associated with the university. Fair enough, but there is always collateral damage in these situations. Did Southern Cal’s players deserve to be punished for Pete Carroll’s actions? Ohio State’s players for Jim Tressel’s?
It has also been said that the NCAA shouldn’t be involved because this is a non-athletic matter. Again, fair enough. But one could make a strong argument that the coverup — and let’s be clear: the coverup, not Sandusky’s abuse of children, sickening as it is, is the real issue here — was the result of Penn State’s efforts to gain a competitive advantage on the football field, which is the key part of any NCAA violation. So, then, the argument could also be made that the legal ramifications of this ordeal and its athletic ramifications are hopelessly intertwined.
The only unfortunate part is that the NCAA likely won’t be able to force Penn State to suspend its football program. The NCAA last issued a death penalty to Southern Methodist University in the 1980s after it was revealed that SMU was paying players. The ruling body’s bylaws state that the death penalty is a response to repeated violations after a program has already been warned and sanctions issued, which would make it difficult to apply in this case, according to college football analysts familiar with NCAA procedures.
But the NCAA can still slap the university with some pretty harsh penalties for its football program. The actions of Penn State’s officials appear to meet the NCAA’s standard for “lack of institutional control,” a serious violation that carries the harshest penalties (aside from the death penalty). The NCAA can ban cut enough scholarships to ensure that Penn State has difficulty competing on the field, it can ban the university from conference championship or bowl games, and it can prohibit any of the university’s football games from being televised.
And that’s exactly what should happen. Not what is likely to happen, but what should happen. And although it’s almost certainly not going to happen, there would be true justice in the NCAA forcing Penn State to vacate wins during the period of lack of institutional control so that Paterno — a coach who I always admired more than any other in the game — is no longer the winningest coach in college football history. Too harsh? Not if the Freeh report is accurate. Freeh’s report says — or at least heavily insinuates — that university officials intended to report Sandusky in 2001, but that Paterno talked them out of it.
If the egregiousness of this university’s efforts to protect its football program at any cost isn’t enough to justify the NCAA’s involvement, as well as potential penalties for the program, there’s always the message that needs to be sent. Because here’s the reality: college football is — for better or worse; mostly worse — a big business. Millions upon millions of dollars are made off the game of football at some of the top universities, such as Penn State (which had the nation’s second-richest college football program, according to estimates, before this scandal broke). And, as such, universities will go to great lengths to protect their cash cow.
It’s a scary thought, but what happened at Penn State could happen at any number of universities throughout the country.
So, let’s make no mistake: the NCAA’s involvement in this will set a bad precedent; it will inevitably expand the NCAA’s power by default, and start college athletics down an even more slippery slope when it comes to the NCAA’s involvement in school affairs. But, sometimes, the end justifies the means.