For Penn State, Does the Punishment Fit the Crime?

Yesterday, the NCAA announced the sanctions it would impose on the Penn State football program after an independent investigation found university administrators—including football coach Joe Paterno—had covered up instances of child rape and systematic sexual abuse by assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The school is being fined $60 million—the approximate amount of its annual revenues from football—as well as being stripped of its titles and wins for 14 years. Some have questioned whether the broad scope of the sanctions, which punish players who may have had no knowledge of the abuse, is fair. The Prospect's Monica Potts and Clare Malone debate the issue.

Clare Malone:  I think that the NCAA went too far in their efforts at collective punishment. Mine is something like the "sins of the father" argument—why are we punishing players (past and present) for the gross mistakes of the coaching staff and the school administration?

Monica Potts: I don't view it as punishing the players, per se. Rather, it serves as a broad corrective to a culture that made football the most important thing on campus, so much so that Joe Paterno was the university’s most powerful official and had the pull to protect a rapist. In the same way the problem was systemic, so is the punishment.

Clare: But in reality, it punishes the players who were just field soldiers in the Penn State machine. You can not like the fact that the football program has such an outsized influence at that school, but you should be holding the administration responsible for those sins.  It was justified to redirect the $60 million in funds that are usually given to the football program to victims’ groups, but stripping college athletes of their titles seems cruel to me. Their official records will be wiped off the books, the banners from their wins taken down. It seems superficial to a lot of people, but not if it's been your whole life as a player.

Monica: The $60 million wasn't given to the football program—it was what the football program earned every year in revenue. I think that's important, because it shows how much outside influence and sway the football program had. I know the players didn't directly have anything to do with Jerry Sandusky's rapes. But they contributed to a culture that gave Joe Paterno the power he had. This is a college community where people held a candlelight vigil for Paterno when he was forced to resign, even after they knew about Sandusky's crimes. The vigil should have been for the victims, and these sanctions should remind people of that.

Clare: I agree that the reaction of the State College community was a perverse one—those vigils should have been first and foremost for the victims of the crimes. But the football program's $60 million in earned revenue funds things at Penn State beside the football program. That money goes to other sports teams at the school that couldn't survive without the support of the football team. Yes, football has too much power at Penn State, but you can’t tell people not to love football, and you can’t deny that some of that power has been used for good things, like making sure non-lucrative teams at the school stay funded and their players remain on scholarship. 

I think your point of culture at the school and in the town raises a more complicated issue. The groupthink that occurs on these teams is pretty strong; it's the mentality of “we protect our own” that led Paterno to make a gross sin of omission in not following up on Sandusky's crimes. But changing that culture starts with the coaching staff and its priorities. 

Monica: But if you only target those directly involved, you run the risk of something similar happening in the exact same way. A long-time, beloved coach; a president in charge of running, first and foremost, a football school; and an athletic department that depends on revenues for funding—I think those are the only ingredients you need for some terrible cover-up to happen. It might be unfortunate for individual Penn State students to be made an example of, but it's much more important that the NCAA send a signal to other schools that they'd better keep their houses in order.

Clare: But wouldn't the $60 million fine/mandatory charity donation, plus being banned from bowl games for a number of years have been enough? I really don't see what retroactively stripping athletes of their accolades does. People know that the team won such-and-such games and what kind of seasons they had. It's just that the NCAA won't officially recognize the wins.

I think the trauma that the community has gone through might be more effective in changing the culture of the place than what an arbitrary action by the NCAA might do. State College has gone through a year of public shaming by the rest of the country. I'm pretty sure that they're not going to do things the way they used to. I just think that this is the NCAA getting up on a sanctimonious high-horse. This has become a larger community problem, and I think the stripping of wins is superficial and mean-spirited.

Monica: I get the superficiality of it, and the NCAA does have an annoying penchant for trying to act like a God—it’s a bit silly to think they can go back in time and “un-win” all these games. But stripping Joe Paterno of his official “winningest coach in football history” title is important as a punishment for his legacy. But, symbolically, I think it also says, "The wins from these years don't count as much as the abuse that was happening." That counts for a lot.

Clare: I get the importance of diminishing Paterno in light of his egregious personal failings, but the record of the team is not directly related to the rapes. The rapes were enabled by the entire chain of command turning a blind eye—they were an unfortunate product of a really bad coaching culture, a really bad administrative culture. The team was still good, though. Saying that the wins don't matter as much as the abuse that was taking place to me is a given. Of course they don't. I guess I just have enough faith in people for them to recognize that fact. I don't see a problem with Paterno keeping his title of winningest coach—it wouldn't have mattered. All people will ever talk about is how he let those rapes continue. That would have been his legacy with or without the official ruling by the NCAA.

I'm also coming at this from the general athlete's perspective. Yes, Paterno headed the ship, and that's all we think about when we think about Penn State, but you need to remember that he wasn't the person who was doing the tackling and getting the concussions. There are other people for whom this decision means taking away what might have been some of the greatest accomplishments in their lives. And I don't think saying that takes away from the awful tragedy that happened. 

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