The NCAA brought the proverbial hammer down on Penn State on Monday, levying a huge fine and other large punishments while stopping short of the actual death penalty.
The damage, if you are curious, is technically substantial: $60 million dollars in fines, a four-year bowl ban, four years worth of scholarships out the window and the eradication of Penn State’s victories from 1998 to 2011. I say “technically” because this is damage on a football level, so who gives a shit? This doesn’t actually solve or resolve anything in the short or long run, not in the sense that actually matters, because it’s not like Jerry Sandusky’s victims are going to be comforted knowing that Penn State’s wins from 1998 to 2011 were vacated.
This is what the NCAA has to do in this type of situation, to show that the NCAA is still policing college football, to show that the NCAA has both the power and the resolve to use it, and to show that the NCAA really does care about the victims and about putting safety and decency ahead of football. This is transparently untrue, of course.
Look at what NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a press conference on Monday: “Football will never be put ahead of educating, protecting and nurturing young people.” That is also blatantly, demonstrably false. Football players who are ostensibly “student-athletes” are often given easy courses to maximize the time and mental energy they can focus on football, and the ones who can go pro often do so without getting their degrees (something the schools know will happen when they offer scholarships, but they accept it because they know how much money they will make by having those players on their teams, even for just a couple of seasons). The heightened awareness of concussions hasn’t created a single serious rule change in college football, where players continue to ram their heads into one another and incur all sorts of other injuries (while playing for free).
The NCAA has to pretend that it cares about more than just football, and they will pipe up the next time some scandal happens — when some player is caught receiving “improper” benefits, when some coach is caught for bending the rules, when some other program’s success and power leads to criminality — to once again proclaim the rule of law in collegiate sports. This is a lie. College football is populated by highly-compensated, enormously-empowered coaches and athletic directors who bring in acclaim, attention and (above all else) endless revenue, and the only time they are brought back to earth is when one of these coaches or programs or schools gets caught doing something wrong (or, in the case of Penn State, gets caught doing something supremely wrong). Most of the time, they’re caught doing something other schools presumably do (i.e. improper benefits to recruits/players). This time, a school was caught doing nothing while a vile crime was repeatedly perpetrated on their campus and under the aegis of their sainted head coach.
Okay, so Joe Paterno is no longer the winningest coach in major college football history. Bully for Bobby Bowden, who now holds that record and who must be positively thrilled to have his name suddenly popping up in stories about the Penn State scandal. Okay, so Penn State’s football program has been decimated and it will presumably be at least a decade before it returns to the kind of prominence it enjoyed under Paterno. Again: Who cares?
I ask this rhetorically, of course. We know who cares. The football fanatics who have somehow found a way to separate Joe “Man Among Men” Paterno, coach of their beloved Nittany Lions, from Joe “Looked The Other Way And Allowed Abhorrent Child Abuse To Continue For Literally Years, I Will Repeat For Years, And There Is Simply No Other Way To Characterize His Behavior” Paterno. The proud Penn State faithful, the alums and other assorted supporters who donated $208 million to the school during the scandal. The various people associated with the school or with Paterno, people who feel that there is somehow a way in which the culture at Penn State wasn’t a decayed, corrupted cesspool because Sandusky was an individual and lots of people made mistakes and why punish the students and the student-athletes, you know?
To discuss the scandal at Penn State and debate whether or not the school, or its football program, or its student-athletes, or its late coach, are being treated unfairly or judged prematurely is to focus on sideshows while ignoring the overriding malignant iniquity at the core. That is precisely what the Paterno family is doing with their incessantly issued statements sent out with every new development, a tone-deaf move they are clearly repeating only to make sure some version of Paterno’s side is heard and to try (in vain) to protect his reputation; his family’s inability to know when to pipe down is particularly ironic because the entire reason we now view Paterno in a new light is because he chose to be silent when he should have spoken up.
The supporters of Penn State — the people who believe these sanctions are unfair, who believe the school is being improperly punished, who believe anything other than that a gruesome evil was committed and tolerated and allowed to take root and that that is all that matters — decry this decision. I cannot really fathom this. Penn State is known for being a football powerhouse, and now it won’t be a football powerhouse for a while. A standout football team is not the birthright of everyone who passes through State College. Among the many problems at Penn State was the fact that the football program’s success and financial value (which went hand-in-hand with Paterno and the power he wielded over the school) rendered it, in the words of the NCAA president, “too big to fail.” That does not mean that it should be immune to penalties. That does not mean that it has a right to continue existing and competing in the same way it has for the last several decades; just because they have had a championship team and hundreds of wins and a legendary coach does not mean that they deserve to continue having any or all of these things (or even having the chance to have these things) in perpetuity.
The football aspect of this entire debacle is being punished because that’s one of the things that can be punished, with Sandusky already convicted and with other trials looming. The fact that Penn State’s fans and supporters have rallied to the defense of their program and their coach shows the importance the program has in their hearts, and that is why hitting the program would seemingly be an ideal way to show them that the football team is not what matters here. (Predictably, this does not seem to have worked.)
The only people being hit by these punishments that could deserve even a tiny sliver of our pity (and even then it’s a mere shadow of the sorrow felt for the victims, which is an obvious point but a point worth stating) are the Penn State players who opted to attend the school. For many of them, this represents the climax of their athletic careers, and one can only imagine how many young men opted to play at Penn State because they wanted to play for the glorified, sanctified Joe Paterno. For some, their collegiate play represents their audition for the pros, and for them their financial futures could be tied to what they do on the field (which could, in turn, suffer while playing for a demolished program). But the NCAA included in their sanctions an out for these players, letting them transfer to any other college without having to sit for a year (as college football players are otherwise required to do, unlike their coaches). So even that element is removed.
We’re left again with one set of actual victims — the only ones that have ever mattered in this entire thing. It never mattered if Joe Paterno’s legacy took a hit or if Penn State’s current coaches and players couldn’t make it to the Rose Bowl. That was just about football, about image, and like all of sports, it existed merely to distract us from the harsh realities of life. In this case, the reality was and is that the only victims are the people assaulted by Jerry Sandusky, repeatedly, over a period of many years. Nothing else matters here.