NCAA gets it right – Don’t kill Penn State football, put it to work for abused kids

The NCAA got it right.

The governing body for college athletics let Penn State football survive, but whacked the university hard. It did so in a way that not only was commensurate to Penn State’s abysmal moral failures, but also does something to combat child abuse, the evil that was at the heart of the case.

The penalties announced Monday morning by NCAA President Mark Emmert included a $60 million fine – a figure he said was roughly equal to average annual football revenues in Happy Valley. The money, he said, will be deployed to help abused children, much along the lines I laid out in the commentary piece that aired on WHYY-FM this morning, before Emmert’s announcement.

The Nittany Lions will still get to play football, but will go to no bowl games for four years – which in “normal” NCAA wrist-slapping terms is a huge punishment in and of itself.

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The NCAA also did something unpredicted, which speaks eloquently to how appalled it is by what the Sandusky child abuse case revealed about Joe Paterno, the man who was formerly the avatar for college football’s fondest ideals.  It also speaks to the need to address the perverted values that arise from a situation where a football team becomes, as Emmert put it, “too big to fail, to big to even challenge.”

The NCAA vacated all of Penn State’s football victories from 1998 through 2011.  Why 1998? That is when, according to the Freeh Report, Paterno and Penn State President Graham Spanier got the first inkling of Sandusky’s crimes. That’s when the culpable, decade-plus dance of willful ignorance and cover-up by university leaders began.

What does that matter, the non-fan might ask?  Who cares?

Well, it means the NCAA has just taken away Joe Paterno’s and Penn State’s most cherished record of all: Paterno’s stature as the winningest college football coach of all time.  He reached that level with his final win last fall, against Illinois, just before the Sandusky indictments broke.

It means that, formally, Joe Paterno will no longer stand atop the NCAA record book like a colossus.

Just symbolic?  Sure.  But, trust me, this one will hurt. It will upset those who just can’t seem to get it through their head that Paterno was at the center, not the periphery, of this horrific chain of inaction and cover-up.

And you have to appreciate the right-between-the-eyes nature of how taking away all those glorious wins responds to a tragedy where the thrills and rewards of winning blinded an entire insular culture to what was right, what was moral, what was demanded to protect children.


Here’s the text of this morning’s radio commentary, in which I suggested a penalty not that different from the one the NCAA ended up leveling.

 Should the Penn State scandal be punishable by the “death penalty”?

That’s the popular term for the stiffest punishment meted out by the NCAA, the fussbudgets who run runs collegiate athletics.

The NCAA could bar Penn State from competing in football, or even all sports, for an entire season – or more.

So far, Southern Methodist is the only university the NCAA has ordered to cancel a football season, in 1987. SMU’s crime: letting boosters routinely pay players.

Here are the arguments in favor of shutting Nittany Lions football down for a spell:

Jerry Sandusky’s horrific crimes against children clearly were enabled by a campus culture of subordinating everything else to the good of the football program, as determined by the godlike figure of Joe Paterno.

What if the NCAA, which hammered SMU over garden-variety violations of the tattered amateur ideal, then let Penn State off the hook for its football-induced blindness, which put untold children at risk?

Wouldn’t that vividly demonstrate how the geysers of cash thrown off by big-time NCAA sports have screwed up our values?

But there’s an opposing argument, to which I lean: While the scandal exposed a fouled-up culture in Happy Valley, the actual misdeeds, as far as we know, are limited to five men. One is going to jail. One is dead, his legend despoiled. Another was fired, and two more are suspended.

NCAA sanctions would not hurt them. Here’s who they’d mostly hurt: The scholarship athletes, women and men, for whom donning the blue and white is a dream come true. Penn State football’s $72 million in annual revenue subsidizes the rest of the university’s athletic teams, while producing a $32 million profit on top of that.

Sanctions would also hurt all the local business people and workers who profit from the autumn influx of fans.

So here’s a compromise: Let Nittany Lions football continue, on one condition: Every – every – dollar of net income that Penn State athletics creates for the next five years will flow into a new philanthropy.

Call it the Lion’s Tear Foundation. The money would be dedicated to fighting the demonic plague of child abuse.  A long list of worthy agencies do that needed work across the land, all year long.   They would know how ot make good use of grants from the foundation. (I would hesitate to name one single agency as beneficiary; that usually doesn’t turn out well, when small organizations get hit with windfalls for which they are unprepared.)

With gridiron profits earmarked for Lion’s Tear, the loyalty of the teams’ many football fans and boosters would be helping the university atone for its sins, not just trying to fuel another trip to the Rose Bowl.

And the result might be some timely help for the kids for whom Penn State so grievously forgot to care.

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