Near-death penalty was right call

Near-death penalty was right call

Published Jul. 23, 2012 1:00 a.m. ET

Go ahead and argue this was too harsh, even unnecessary. Feel free to question whether the NCAA has the moral authority to destroy the Penn State football program, which it did Monday with a series of sanctions that will undoubtedly make it look more like Appalachian State than a Big Ten power for at least the next four years.

But before you rage against the unprecedented hammer NCAA president Mark Emmert pounded down on Penn State, before you dismiss the impact of turning an elite football program into a patsy, go back to Nov. 8, 2011, five days after the world had learned about Jerry Sandusky and his horrific crimes.

There was Joe Paterno, shuffling out of his house while hundreds, perhaps thousands, of students stood on his lawn chanting his name. Paterno, frail, but narcissistic as ever, was practically beaming as the cameras surrounded him.

“I’ve lived for this place, I’ve lived for people like you guys and girls and I’m just so happy to see you could feel so strongly about us and about your school,” he said with no hint of embarrassment or irony.


And then, as Paterno turned to walk back inside and the students chanted, “Let Joe stay! Let Joe Stay!” he stopped and raised his fist.

“We are!” Paterno shouted.

“Penn State!” they screamed back.

No, you were Penn State. And the NCAA has made sure that version of it – the one that inspired such blind hero-worship, such devotion to the false idol of football – won’t be coming back any time soon.

Penn State, from its sidewalk alums to the highest reaches of its administration, cared far too much about that program. Now, there’s significantly less of it to love.

The NCAA didn’t give Penn State the so-called death penalty, but this will have a similar effect. A $60 million fine, equivalent to the football revenues for one season. A four-year postseason ban, matching the longest ever handed down to a program. A reduction from 85 to 65 football scholarships per year for the next four years, meaning Penn State will basically be at the Football Championship Subdivision level. And to top it off, the NCAA is allowing any Penn State player to transfer without penalty.

It will be complete and utter wreckage of that program, which was 8-1 and ranked No. 12 in the country last November when the Sandusky case emerged. Suddenly, Penn State won’t be a factor for a decade or more. It may not fully recover in our lifetime.

“The cautionary tale is that every major college and university needs to do a gut check and ask where are we on the appropriate balance between the culture in athletics and broader culture of the university and make certain they’ve got the balance right, and if not, to take corrective action,” said Oregon State president and NCAA executive committee chairman Ed Ray.

The truth is, there’s no perfect punishment the NCAA could have given Penn State, no way to send a message while avoiding collateral damage. Will this provide relief to Sandusky’s victims or fix the culture of college athletics in Tuscaloosa or Norman or Ann Arbor? Probably not. Is it fair that the current players and coaches at Penn State will have to suffer the consequences of terrible, cowardly decisions made by Paterno, former school president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley? Absolutely not.

But credit the NCAA and Emmert for understanding that the Penn State community needed to be grabbed by its collective lapel and shaken until its priorities became properly aligned. Even when Sandusky was exposed as a child molester, even when it seemed obvious to the world that Paterno had to go, the instincts of that place were still protective of that program to a breathtaking degree.

When Paterno yelled, “We are!” and they responded, “Penn State!” in the midst of that tragic week, none of them really considered they should have been ashamed of that. The NCAA doesn’t have many ways to send that message, but this is certainly one of them.

For me, it seemed obvious from the first reading of the Freeh Report that Penn State would be better served to shut down its football program this season and reboot with a fresh perspective, if for no other reason than to put some distance between itself and these last nine months of awfulness.

But if the NCAA and Penn State weren’t willing to go down that road, this is a proper alternative. This is punishment based in decency, from the $60 million fine that will go to children’s charities to the NCAA bending over backwards to assist players in either finding new schools or guaranteeing they’ll have scholarships at Penn State if they choose to stay. In a situation where the NCAA simply couldn’t sit on the sidelines, yet risked being perceived as too heavy-handed, it’s hard to fault Emmert’s conclusion.

Penn State football will never be the same, and it shouldn’t be. Watching that clip from Paterno’s lawn this morning was another reminder that the NCAA did the right thing.