Penn State Football: Did Nittany Lions Deserve the Death Penalty?

Adam Jacobi@Adam_JacobiBig Ten Football Lead WriterJuly 23, 2012

NCAA President Mark Emmert drops the hammer on Penn State at a Monday morning news conference.
NCAA President Mark Emmert drops the hammer on Penn State at a Monday morning news conference.Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Penn State was hammered on Monday with severe sanctions from the NCAA—as a matter of fact, some of the harshest ever—and a concurrent censure and penalty from the Big Ten.

The penalties are so deep, including an estimated $73 million in total fines and a 65-scholarship football team for four years, that it's fair to wonder: Should Penn State have just been given the "death penalty" instead?

The "death penalty," levied only once before in NCAA football history, is a complete suspension of the program for a year or more. Southern Methodist was hit with that penalty in 1987 after the NCAA uncovered repeat offenses in paying players with a slush fund. SMU then opted out of the 1988 season after school officials determined it wouldn't be able to field a viable team.

SMU's program has never been the same (which sort of makes sense, since its highest highs came as a result of widespread violations). It's been 25 years since the hammer was dropped, so clearly the death penalty carries with it severe repercussions, ones that last long after the final sanction has been lifted. 

At the same time, though, that penalty carries a lot of collateral damage, specifically to the teams that were on the schedule. TV spots have to be filled, non-conference slates have to be rearranged, and the conference alignment needs to be overhauled entirely.

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An eight-game schedule in an 11-team conference is obviously possible—the Big Ten did it between Penn State's arrival in 1993 and Nebraska's in 2011. However, it's impossible to keep the divisional structure with six teams in one and five in the other.

Assuming a round-robin in divisional play, the six-team division would need to fill 18 inter-divisional slots: three per team. However, with the five-team division only playing four divisional games, each team would need four inter-divisional games: 20 total.

So, with no divisions, there's no championship game, and with no championship game, there's no mountains of revenue from said game there for the Big Ten, and that's a roughly $2 million hit per Big Ten school for the duration of Penn State's death penalty.

Now, there's no NCAA rule requiring a full schedule, so the non-conference opponents that had scheduled Penn State could just go with 11-game slates and not suffer too much negative fallout for it. But that's still a major distraction for the affected programs and an unfair consequence for them to deal with.

But let's get back to the question: Did Penn State deserve the death penalty?

That depends on whether what Penn State did was worse than what Southern Methodist did. Clearly, the answer to that is yes, and the NCAA (and, y'know, the criminal justice system) reacted quickly and forcefully as a result.

Again, Penn State's penalties are just about the worst the NCAA has ever doled out, and they'll affect PSU football for a long time to come.

The real answer, though, is that even if Penn State deserved the death penalty, the rest of the Big Ten and college football didn't deserve to deal with those consequences. Thus, the NCAA's punishment is even wiser in that regard. The games go on, and the structure everyone has come to expect is still there. 

Moreover, it's going to take a long time for Penn State's program to be at full strength from even a numbers standpoint. It'll be 2018 at the earliest before the Nittany Lions have 85 men on the roster again, and that's assuming perfect compliance with NCAA regulations.

We do expect Penn State to comply, as those responsible for the current mess are all long gone and the new guard deserves the benefit of the doubt. Still, this program's teeth are pulled for years to come.

Furthermore, the fact that Penn State isn't allowed to enjoy any aspect of the postseason—not the games, not the practices and not even the standard share of conference bowl revenue—means that the team and its players are only there to function as (severely undermanned) opponents for everyone else. Elite players have higher aspirations than that, and literally everyone else in college football can offer to meet those aspirations better than Penn State can.

So it is totally fair to ask why a player would even want to come to Penn State over the next few years—and even the most principled and fair of opposing coaches will ask exactly that question during recruiting, over and over.

That's something that wouldn't be the case if Penn State just took a year off (and suffered versions of the other sanctions as well). 

Thus, between the scholarship restrictions and overall disincentive for players to come to Penn State, this can accurately be described as a fate "worse than death" for Penn State.

But it's only worse for Penn State—it's better for everybody else. That's why, for as much as Penn State deserved the death penalty, its program lives to see the 2013 season and beyond.

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