Discipline and Punish: The Purpose of the NCAA's Sanctions Against Penn State

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Discipline and Punish: The Purpose of the NCAA's Sanctions Against Penn State
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On the morning of July 23rd, I remember listening to Mike Greenberg (of Mike and Mike on ESPN Radio) loosely review the NCAA’s recommended—and now established—punishments for Penn State in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal and trial.

Greenberg sounded by turns tired, exasperated, and vaguely confused. He read through the list of penalties—a $60 million fine, a four-year bowl ban, loss of scholarships, an effective demotion from the status of a top-tier athletics program—like a man whose attention was slowly being diverted by immaterial distraction. All the while, Greenberg and his colleague, Mike Golic, asked if these sanctions were appropriate, consulting experts, and inquiring after other analysts and onlookers.

They checked Twitter and their e-mail accounts and their text messages at ESPN. There was a variety of opinion on the subject and little agreement. Surely, Penn State should be castigated for its misdeeds, its willful blindness. Surely, the football program would have to be addressed. And surely, the culture of the athletics program at the university must be altered.

But when the penalties were made public this past weekend, assessments as to their efficacy varied.

Some said it would bury Penn State for at least the next few years. Recruits would leave. Current students would sign on elsewhere. Other analysts prophesied that this would ruin Penn State for nearly a decade, for two decades, demoting the school to Division II status.

Who will play for a team that cannot get to a bowl game for four years? Who will the team field this year, given the university’s reduced number of scholarships? 

There were so many questions.  There was much to analyze. It was the sort of landmark event that will, in many ways both foreseeable and unknowable, alter collegiate athletics. 

And yet, no one said anything about the root cause of all this chaos.

Patrick Smith/Getty Images

No one mentioned Sandusky.

No one mentioned the legendary coach—and his now crumbling legacy— who was revealed to be involved in a sad hush-up to protect the team’s old defensive coordinator.

And more importantly, most importantly, no one mentioned any of the young men who Sandusky abused, assaulted, coerced and raped.

When we should be talking about how to make student populations safer, we are now talking about the future of Penn State football. When we should be discussing the ramifications of Sandusky’s actions and how to stop them in the future, we are talking about recruits leaving Penn State like medieval villagers fleeing the plague.

The moment the NCAA handed down its recommendation to sanction Penn State, the story was no longer about protecting children, preventing future abuses, or ensuring a culture of honesty in collegiate athletics programs.

The story is now about a safe, hallowed topic that is both easily accessible and mordantly prescient. The story is no longer about survivors of assaults more gruesome than anything anyone can imagine.

It is about a child’s game for which an overwhelming majority of Americans have a peculiar fondness. The story is no longer about justice for the accusers and their families. It is about dollars and trophies and the public shaming of a university.

It seems unlikely that Mark Emmert, executive director of the NCAA, sought to suppress news about the Sandusky scandal and all memory of the brave young men who testified against their tormentor, though that seems to be one immediate result of these penalties.

No one is talking about the aging Sandusky, who will now live out the remainder of his days in a prison, far from anyone he could conceivably prey on. No one is talking about the victims or sexual abuse on college campuses—which runs rampant outside of athletic programs, too.

In short, the penalties distract us from the one part of this arcing and increasingly troubling narrative that is, in fact, most important.

The NCAA’s recommendations do little to address sexual abuse or assault. They do next to nothing to ensure that people like Sandusky will never be able to work in a university again. The penalties place all of the burden, bizarrely enough, on twenty-something football players who have little familiarity with any of the major figures involved in the case. And though I do concur with the spirit of the NCAA’s punitive measures against Penn State, those measures are neither sensible nor responsive directly to the crimes committed.

Legal sentences in general are always exacted to send a message to future perpetrators: if and when you are found, your fate will be sealed. But the problem with large-scale disciplinary measures is that they do not ensure the honesty or forthrightness of those who are most likely to commit crimes in the future.

Punishments are suppressive as often as they are purgative. Can we be certain—or at least somewhat believing of the idea that—in light of Penn State’s accepted penalties, there will not be another series of abuses and cover-ups like those that occurred in Happy Valley?

Of course not.

Which means that the NCAA’s punishments at Penn State miss the point entirely. We cannot guarantee the safety of young people by denying football scholarships to a handful of athletes. We cannot ensure the security of students by forbidding a football team from participating in playoff games. We cannot satisfy our fears of abuses and assaults like these recurring by vacating wins or handing out fines, no matter how large, no matter how damning.

Moreover, legal sentences need to fit the crime committed and in no way does the hamstringing of a college’s football program matter in the field of criminal justice. What do any of the NCAA’s recommended (and accepted) measures have to do with sexual abuse or student safety?

The question the NCAA should have asked was, “How can we ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again?” The answer could not possibly have been, “Well, let’s vacate wins going back to a symbolic year, take away the university’s ability to recruit new players, and prevent the team from participating in more football games. That, to me, seems appropriate.”

And yet, here we are.

The NCAA’s rulings seem designed only to ensure that future scandals will be kept out of the spotlight, hidden away, sequestered in the darkest corners until no one is the wiser.

For Penn State, these measures seem to be the best way to maintain the football program’s insularity and opacity.  No one from Penn State, certainly, will embrace the transparency necessary to monitor the staff, the players, the people involved in the program to ensure their moral and ethical fortitude.

This does not mean that corrective measures shouldn’t be handed down nor that the NCAA should shirk its duties as an enforcer of moral and sportsmanlike conduct for the universities it oversees. But when the NCAA does step into the mire of ethical dilemmas, it should do so with a modicum of reference to the parties involved and apply justice with an even hand.

The only component of the punishment that seems to fit is the designation of the $60 million to programs that support survivors of abuse and assault.

Perhaps the NCAA should have mandated that the university subsidize students who wish to go into social work or do research in Abnormal Psychology. Perhaps the university should be required to have higher levels of security on campus. Or, it might make some sense to do criminal background checks on collegiate athletics employees and have Penn State’s football program allocate funds for some of those checks.

But subtracting 112 wins from Joe Paterno’s record does not a safer community make, nor does it provide even a semblance of justice for the survivors or their families. Buried under all of the immaterial news about the future of Penn State’s nearly moribund football program is the terrible reality of Sandusky’s crimes, which no one seems willing to acknowledge any longer.

The injunctions against Penn State will come to look increasingly insensible over the years, as it becomes apparent how these measures affect the whole university—not just the football program—and how the entirety of State College responds. There is already worry that fielding a poor football team will negatively affect businesses in Penn State’s proverbial college town, that the university’s programs will suffer due to a decreased interest in attendance.

Additionally, those involved in the protection of Sandusky are either dead or soon to be prosecuted, without chance of reprisal. Spanier, Curley, Schultz, and Paterno—those associated with all of the academic and athletic power at the university up until last year—have been removed from office, allowing for an immediate regime change.  

The idea that the NCAA can mete justice in what was and continues to be a criminal and ethics case resounds as shockingly absurd. The measures taken against Penn State do not constitute a furthering of retribution for those most direly and directly affected by Sandusky or the actions of his apparent protectors at the university. 

I wonder now what the young men who Sandusky abused think about the NCAA’s decision, if they find in the vacated wins and penalties and scholarship losses some solace.

Emmert and the NCAA must imagine so. It was, after all, the punishment they deemed to fit the crime. 

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