The Folly of Defending Joe Paterno and Penn State

Kelly Scaletta@@KellyScalettaFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2012

STATE COLLEGE, PA - JULY 23: Penn State students and others react to the sanctions the NCAA announced against Penn State in the HUB on the campus of Penn State on July 23, 2012 in State College, Pennsylvania. As an outcome of the university's mishandling of the allegations of child-sexual abuse by former coach Jerry Sandusky, Penn State was fined $60 million, was stripped of all its football wins from 1998 through 2011, barred from postseason games for four years, and lost 20 total scholarships annually for four seasons.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Prior to the launch of the college football season, ESPN analyst Lou Holtz added his name to the defenders of Penn State against the sanctions delivered by the NCAA. In his comments before Thursday night's South Carolina-Vanderbilt game, he called out the NCAA for sanctioning Penn State and said he would be "cheering for" the Nittany Lions. 

This preposterous notion that somehow Penn State is being treated unfairly is ludicrous and one that deserves scrutiny. The defenders have developed a certain kind of specious rhetoric which doesn't hold up against sound logic. Here are their major arguments and why they are flawed.  


The "It's About Jerry Sandusky, not Penn State" Argument

First, let's be clear on one thing—Jerry Sandusky is the child rapist here. No one is accusing Joe Paterno or anyone else of those things. Sandusky is the pedophile. The rest were enablers. 

Let's not make light of the enablers by saying they didn't rape any children. Let's not even make it out that they didn't do anything illegal. Let's also not make it just about Joe Paterno. 

Let's make this about what it is about, nothing more, nothing less. 

Penn State, as an institution, with its most prominent administrators fully involved, including Paterno, willfully covered up the rape of children and let it go on for more than a decade in order to avoid bringing embarrassment to the football program. 

This is a crime, not in the metaphorical sense, but in the literal sense, as in the university broke the law. It obstructed and violated the Clery Act

When forced to chose between protecting children from being raped and protecting the program, Penn State chose the program.  There was no "Sophie's Choice" here. There was an outrageous indifference to the well-being of the children and exclusive concern for the football program. 

It is disturbing to see so many people try to build a straw man out of this argument. They accuse those who feel that Penn State, the institution, should be punished of trying make this about something other than what it is about. But it was the institution that acted to cover up crimes. 

The defenders of Penn State want to say it's about Sandusky, that Sandusky is in jail, and that all of this is just in reaction to what Sandusky did. 

Let's be perfectly clear here. No one but Sandusky deserves to be punished for what Sandusky did. That, however, doesn't mean that Penn State, the institution, doesn't deserve to be punished for what it did. 

The institution chose to cover up unspeakable, egregious crimes. We can't say that the administrators and Paterno did one thing and the institution did another. They were the institution. 

Yes, the administrators and Paterno have been replaced. Burt that doesn't mean that they weren't the institution.

They were no less the institution than any other university that has been sanctioned by the NCAA. 


The Jurisdiction Argument

Another argument I've heard is that the NCAA doesn't have jurisdiction and/or authority here. This is entirely misleading. 

Some argue there is no specific NCAA rule that was violated. That's laughable. Yes, there was no specific rule forbidding the protection of ex-coaches who are raping children in the football team's showers. Perhaps the NCAA was short-sighted in that matter. 

Or maybe the NCAA didn't sit around and brainstorm about every possible evil that an institution could possibly commit. 

The bottom line is that this is far worse than getting tattoos, or even letting someone's parents stay in a mansion. This is protecting a pedophile. 

To get into semantics and split hairs about what constitutes a "rules violation" or the parameters of the NCAA's jurisdiction is silly. Sure, this would make sense if the NCAA were getting involved in some lesser thing, but the sheer magnitude of this makes it unique. 

We can play games about what the rules were, but the fact that no one ever imagined that an entire administration would act in such a way is hardly a defense. 

There's the letter of the law and there's the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law is about banning actions that give an institution an advantage. We can play games with logic and say that Penn State didn't "gain" a competitive advantage, but it did maintain one.

The reason Penn State covered up Sandusky's crimes was to not lose its reputation, and by extension, its recruits. The decision was motivated by a desire to not lose a competitive advantage, and that's tantamount to the same thing.

Point blank, Penn State had a better football team because it didn't report Sandusky's crime.

The university put a lower priority on stopping the rape of children than on losing recruits. That's worse than any recruiting violation in NCAA history. Whining about the technicalities of what constitutes an NCAA violation is just another misplacement of priorities.


The "They're Punishing the Wrong" People

The next frequent argument you hear is that they're punishing the wrong people. They say that the team and coach there now weren't the ones responsible, so why should they be punished?

When an embezzler is prosecuted and his assets are frozen, his family suffers, but that doesn't mean his family is being punished. He is being punished and part of the fallout is that his family suffers. 

Penn State, the institution, is being punished. Are others affected? Yes, but that's the institution's fault, not the NCAA's. This is hardly unique to this situation. 

The teams that follow are always the ones that have to bear the brunt of NCAA sanctions. It's the way it works. However, what you have to bear in mind is that it's not a team that is being punished, it's an institution. The sanctions are aimed at the profits the institution makes from football. 

The reason that the institution is punished is that the institution could just keep firing its head coach, or whomever committed whatever violations, and hiring a new one, thereby perpetuating the problem. 

Schools could essentially just continue to cheat and never be punished by always hiding behind the "it's not the ones who are here now who did it" argument. 

The institution is responsible, ergo the institution gets punished. 

As far as the players go, they weren't "punished" and some actually benefited. Consider this.

The ones who are truly talented were free to change schools without penalty. They didn't have to suffer. 

And the ones who stayed are doing so of their own free will, so they aren't being punished.

They may not win as many games, but the opportunity to participate for a Big Ten team remains.


The "Penn State Hasn't Had a Chance to Present a Defense" Argument

The next argument is that Penn State hasn't had due process, a defense, or a chance to present its defense. There are a couple of things about this which are particularly infuriating. 

First, let's remember that the report conducted by former FBI director Louis J. Freeh is the Penn State version of events. 

The Freeh report was commissioned by the Penn State Board of Trustees, not the NCAA. Truth be told, the NCAA hasn't even conducted an investigation. The only "side" which has been presented is the Penn State side. 

The reality is that by commissioning its own investigation and sharing the results, Penn State might have gotten less severe sanctions than it would have had it failed to do so. 

Second, let's bear in mind that "due process" is a legal right that applies only to a defendant in a criminal trial.

The NCAA is not required to give Penn State or any other school due process, and it traditionally does not.

Do you recall some sort of "trial" before USC was placed on NCAA probation. Is there traditionally "due process" afforded to schools before they are punished? In case you're wondering, the answer is no.

There is an appeals process, which USC utilized successfully, and Penn State is free to attempt the same course.

To act like Penn State is being treated "differently" here is not accurate.  In fact, when people complain about there being no due process, their complaint is that they actually aren't being treated differently.

Penn State is being treated "differently" here, but only in the sense that is has been afforded more of an opportunity to respond than anyone else who has received sanctions. Can you think of another school that was ever allowed to say what they did wrong and the NCAA didn't investigate further?


The "Panicked Response" Argument

This is like that guy who tells you to "calm down" when you're talking in a perfectly normal tone of voice and he's freaking out. 

The critics like to try to argue that the NCAA sanctions are some sort of hasty response to a media-driven circus. They want to suggest that it's a "rush to judgement" and that we need to wait until we have "all the facts." 

Those that make these arguments tend to either overlook or completely ignore certain realities. The Freeh Report was hardly "rushed." The investigation included:

Conducting over 430 interviews of key University personnel and other knowledgeable individuals to include: current and former University Trustees and Emeritus Trustees; current and former University administrators, faculty, and staff, including coaches; former University student‐athletes; law enforcement officials; and members of the State College community at the University Park, Behrend, Altoona, Harrisburg and Wilkes‐Barre campuses, and at other locations in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and the District of Columbia, and by telephone;


Analyzing over 3.5 million pieces of pertinent electronic data and documents,


"Establishing a toll‐free hotline and dedicated email address to receive information relevant to the investigation, and reviewing the information provided from telephone calls and emails received between November 21, 2011 and July 1, 2012.

Is there anything about that that even remotely seems "rushed?" Is it the 3,701,532nd piece of pertinent electronic data that is going to suddenly make everything go away? Is it the 452nd interview?

For that matter, what possible justification could there be? Even hypothetically, if there were some hidden piece of evidence that has yet to be uncovered, what could it be?

Let's also bear in mind that Penn State has an incentive to offer such evidence. Why would the university be sitting on something that would exonerate it?

It's just pure sophistry to keep arguing that there's something being rushed here. I would say over 3.5 million pieces of evidence and more than 430 interviews is pretty thorough. The only "rush to judgement" is by those accusing the NCAA of "rushing." 


The "Slippery Slope" Argument

The last argument that people have tried to use to deny the validity of the NCAA ruling is that it's a "slippery slope." They argue that now that the precedent is set, the NCAA will try to impose its moral will every time a coach commits even the slightest rules infraction.

The "Slippery Slope" fallacy is not new. It's an age-old argument, but it's always a fallacy. I'm not just saying that it's a fallacy. It's an actual official fallacy that would be taught as one in any prepositional logic course, even one taught at Penn State.

When people say, "it's a slippery slope..." and then go on and say something else, they're saying, "Here's a specious argument, hear me out." The only thing is that people aren't aware that it's an actual fallacy. That's because logic has been so mutilated by today's press and politics that it's now used by people who think they're making a sound, logical argument. 

The reason it's a fallacy is that it's trying to make the argument about something else. It's saying "Well this isn't bad, but if this is allowed, it can evolve into this." 

They aren't arguing about what "is," they are arguing about what "will be." In so doing, they change the context. 

The problem is that you can't change the context here. Context is literally everything. Context is the entire reason that the NCAA is acting. 

People say, what about the scandal that involved the lacrosse player who murdered his girlfriend? Should the University of Virginia be sanctioned for failing to protect her?

Well again, let's go back to the original point. What did Penn State do wrong here? Was it a failure to protect the children from Sandusky? Technically, no.

Rather, its fault was that it willfully covered up the rape of children in order to protect the program instead of the children.

So let's compare apples with apples. Did UVA act as an institution to cover up the murder of the young woman in order to protect its lacrosse program? No. So it's not the same thing. 

Should the NCAA add something to its bylaws that penalizes a school that acts to cover up a felony to protect its athletic program? Yes.

Should the same kind of restrictions apply if it turns out that another institution did or does the same thing? Absolutely. 

Here's the thing right now, though. The reason this is the only time that the NCAA has ever done this is that it's never come up before. Penn State is the first and only school to willfully cover up horrific crimes over the course of more than a decade in order to protect its football program's image. 

This is a unique set of circumstances. 

Can we just set aside all the sophistry surrounding this issue?

Penn State is not being unjustly punished here.

The bottom line is this: The NCAA has never delivered a more fair punishment. 


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