I wanted to wait awhile before commenting on the Freeh Report which exposed an apparent cover-up at Penn State with regard to former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and his sexual abuse of young boys that may have begun as early as the 1970s.
Still mindful of the scorched-earth policy most pundits chose last year when Ohio State found itself squarely in the crosshairs of a particularly nasty chain of events that cost the university arguably the best football coach it has ever had and subsequently wrecked the 2011 season, I found myself strangely reluctant to pull the trigger on criticism of Penn State officials, particularly former head coach Joe Paterno.
I have tried to balance the information emanating from the Freeh Report with testimonials from the Paterno family as well as a feeling of genuine compassion for Sandusky’s victims from Penn State alumni and State College residents.
Unfortunately, no measure of loyalty or compassion can erase the fact that crimes were committed – egregious, heinous crimes against defenseless young children – and that those crimes were systematically (and some would say ruthlessly) covered up by a Penn State administration that included president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz, athletic director Tim Curley and Paterno.
For that reason, I believe the NCAA has no choice but to suspend the Penn State football program for a period of at least one year.
The NCAA has implemented its so-called death penalty only five times before and just once to a major college football program. Southern Methodist University, which had boasted the nation’s highest winning percentage during the five-year period from 1980-84, saw its program shut down in 1987 amid a pay-for-play scandal. SMU resumed playing football in 1989 but didn’t enjoy another winning season until 1997. Additionally, the Mustangs, who made four bowl trips in five seasons in the early 1980s, didn’t make another postseason appearance until 2009.
Because it effectively left the SMU program in ruins for the better part of two decades, the NCAA has been exceedingly reluctant to use the death penalty option again, and there is no doubt that shutting down a multimillion-dollar program such as Penn State would have far-reaching effects.
Arguments have been made that such a punitive measure would do more harm than good. For example, benching the Nittany Lions would punish the program’s current coaches and players, none of whom had anything whatsoever to do with the Sandusky case or its cover-up. Likewise, the team’s opposition – eight Big Ten rivals and four nonconference opponents – would be left with a gaping hole on their schedules, creating a financial burden that could threaten their own respective programs and athletic department budgets.
In 2012, Penn State has seven home games on its schedule and expects more than 100,000 people to jam their way into Beaver Stadium on those Saturday afternoons. Canceling those games also cancels the millions of dollars of revenue that pours into Happy Valley during each home game weekend.
The argument has also been made that lives have already been ruined by the Sandusky scandal, so ruining more lives by shutting down the Penn State football program is not the answer.
I have additionally heard the debate from Penn State alumni who contend that because they had nothing to do with the scandal, they should not be ridiculed and their alma mater should not be sanctioned. “We love our school because it’s a community of good people,” one alum wrote to USA Today. “We’re not defined by Jerry Sandusky … and we never will be.”
That is the precisely the kind of rationalization that brought Penn State to where it is today. When a university harbors a serial sexual predator of young children and unapologetically covers it up for decades, the cold, hard truth is that the university is and should be defined by its actions.
Likewise, the disturbing acts of stubbornness and defiance from the Paterno family continues to display an astounding lack of understanding with regard to the gravity of the situation. The hiring of lawyers to comb through the 267-page Freeh report and perform a “comprehensive review” of the findings smacks only of a bald-faced attempt to protect Paterno’s legacy as well as the family fortune.
I know what the NCAA death penalty would mean to Penn State football. It would cease to exist as most of us have known it for all our lives. It would deal a serious blow not only to the university and the Big Ten, but to the college football brand itself.
Then again, it would also hopefully serve as a deterrent to any university official, any coach, or anyone connected with college football that crimes the severity of those committed by Sandusky – and the subsequent cover-up engineered by his superiors – cannot and will not be tolerated.