Penn State Football’s Death

Well, Penn State football didn’t really die, but really with the sanctions that came down, is there really a difference?  Four years without postseason, their fellow Big Ten competitors starving them of revenue, years of wins subtracted from late coach Joe Paterno’s record, and of course – scholarship reductions.  Obviously, the sharks have been swimming around the program since the gristly truth about the university’s amazing cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s years of child molestation – and Mark Emmert fed the sharks the meat they wanted by taking an unprecedented measure, not just by dealing such a harsh punishment but doing it in a manner that seemed to resemble mob justice if the Penn State acting president is to be believed.  It is an overreach of the organization’s previous powers for sure – and a bit of a shaky harbinger for the future.  My thoughts are definitely muddled here – the sentiment behind the penalties and the horror of the entire Penn State story are absolutely right – but it is hard to take the NCAA’s measure seriously as anything other than some very scared administrators absolving their own sins letting football wag the dog by piling on and showing us how much they hate child molesters.

After all, this is not the first time that we’ve had honest criminal shenanigans take place in the collegiate athletic arena.  There was the Virginia lacrosse murder a couple of years ago, and Baylor University covering up a murder.  The latter case the NCAA offered sanctions since the school did pay the dudes involved, and so it fell under the NCAA’s normal areas of expertise in preventing kids from earning their market value protecting the integrity of sport and the spirit of amateurism.  And while Penn State was very much asleep at the wheel and complicit in Jerry Sandusky’s horrific crimes, this was not some systematic ring for hiding child molestation, but a few individuals not doing the right thing – all individuals with names who are easily identified.  What the NCAA has done here is to prospectively sanction the university while more or less letting the actual perpetrators skate by – former Penn State president Graham Spanier in particular.

Of the many comments that Mark Emmert made when he announced the sanctions, the most laugh out loud funny one was:

These events should serve as a call to every single school and athletics department to take an honest look at its campus environment and eradicate the ‘sports are king’ mindset that can so dramatically cloud the judgment of educators

Somehow this probably will ring hollow in Tuscaloosa or The Plains or Athens.  It is hard to say that the culture at Penn State was any more corrupt aside from the fact that they had Jerry Sandusky and the others didn’t (a big honking “aside” granted).  The sanctimonious bleating by the university presidents while not actually holding themselves accountable seems to reflect this reality, some level of self-absolution, “Thank God that wasn’t us … whew”  It is hard to say that the culture has “become” crazy with regards to university politics and big time football – it has been here ever since I can remember.  One suspects that if Sandusky were doing this at Barry Switzer’s right hand man – there would have been circling of the wagons too.

Another danger of this punishment is that the real perpetrators – Graham Spanier, Tim Curley – will be forgotten nationally, and that some of the real starstruck individuals, like Ed Rendell or Tom Corbett (governors of Pennsylvania, the latter the AG) turned a blind eye to this stuff and dragged their feet on any sort of investigation.  Could this have been a teaching moment about where football lies in big time university culture?  Sure – but it seems the form and target of the NCAA and public’s ill will is really more about vengeance than trying to actually solve anything.

The sanctions are going to kill Penn State for the next decade at least, and in terms of magnitude clearly matched up with the crime.  Where one can quibble is the jurisdiction – is this the NCAA’s job and why were the individuals most responsible not addressed separately?  (Graham Spanier clearly should not be running a Wendy’s let alone a major university)  Does this mean the NCAA will intervene in other legal cases involving sports teams – and continue to rely on secondary sources like the Freeh report – without giving the teams any real recourse to defend themselves?  And even so, will the atrophying of a football brand really scare SEC or Big Ten fans straight about the role of football in university culture?  Will the lights REALLY go on in Gainesville?  Ultimately this was an ad hoc solution for the NCAA to save face that it is really serving a function, while sating the public need for vengeance for such a horrible crime against children.  But to think that this episode will do anything to help the relationship between big time football and big time football universes is very very silly.

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