Penn State NCAA penalty: Using a bomb when needing a scalpel

AP Ed Ray, left, NCAA Executive Committee chair and Oregon State University president, answers questiong about the penalties against Penn … Continued

AP

Ed Ray, left, NCAA Executive Committee chair and Oregon State University president, answers questiong about the penalties against Penn State as NCAA President Mark Emmert, looks on during a news conference in Indianapolis, Monday, July 23, 2012. The NCAA has slammed Penn State with an unprecedented series of penalties, including a $60 million fine and the loss of all coach Joe Paterno’s victories from 1998-2011, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

The NCAA took unprecedented, even draconian, measures today in response to the Penn State sex abuse scandal – as well they should have. The fact that former coach Jerry Sandusky was raping children and young men under cover of his role as a highly placed member of a seemingly trustworthy and definitely venerated institution was bad enough. The fact that we now know that his superiors either actively covered for him or passively ignored what they should have known, demanded a response to the entire institution for its role in one of college athletics ugliest moments ever.

There is a difference, however, between punishing guilty individuals and the institution which they lead, and punishing all those who happened to pass through that institution but played no role in the wrong doing that occurred there. There is also a difference between punishing past behaviors, and foolishly attempting to rewrite the past. Unfortunately, the NCAA, however well-intentioned, seems not to appreciate those differences.

The $60 million fine levied against Penn State makes all the sense in the world. It will affect the institution as a whole, as it should. Some may scream that a fine of this size represents a form of collective punishment – one which will impact far more than the football program. It may, but their objection is poorly taken.

The fine represents not collective punishment, which is unethical, but collective responsibility, which is completely ethical and totally appropriate in this case especially. When the university president does wrong, things should go wrong for the university, and the amount in this case is tied directly to the program where the wrong occurred – the 60 million representing one year’s gross revenue from the football program.

The school will also lose out on its typical share of post-season “bowl game” revenue for the next four years. That adds an additional $13 million per year in penalties. Again, the school pays a price for what its leaders did, as it should. But why its current players and those playing over the coming four years should also be banned from playing in those games is beyond me. They did nothing wrong and some of them are not yet even on the team!

Why could they not have allowed Penn State to play in those games but deny them the revenue from them? That would have afforded the players and staff, who are blameless, the opportunity to distinguish themselves without allowing the school as an institution to profit from their achievement.


View Photo Gallery: The statue of Joe Paterno was taken down from outside the Penn State football stadium Sunday as the NCAA announced it would be issuing sanctions against the university, whose top officials were accused in a scathing report of burying child sex-abuse allegations against a now-convicted retired assistant.

Along the same lines, what value is served by vacating all team victories that occurred between 1998 and 2011? I get that erasing those 112 victories from Paterno’s record moves him from the all-time winningest coach to number 12, but what about the players who played in those games? What about the staff during those seasons? And what about the missed opportunity to remind people that victory on the field may actually be linked to losses off of it?

By scrubbing the record, the NCAA demonstrated nothing so much a either a failure of imagination on the NCAA’s part, or a foolish attempt at historical revisionism which seeks to rewrite the past rather than struggle with it. Rather than pretend away what really happened, an especially dangerous response when child molesting is the issue, the NCAA needed to place that dreaded asterisk next to Paterno’s name. The asterisk would forever indicate that during those years, the coach with the most victories was also chalking up the most moral and ethical failures.

This was a moment that demanded attention-getting measures – measures that would not only punish for the past, but actually educate for the future. The harsher the measure though, the more deftly it must be applied. The NCAA appreciated the need for tough action and for that all people, especially those who love college sports, should be grateful. Unfortunately, they did not appreciate the need for deft application.

The NCAA used a bomb when they needed a scalpel. In doing so, they not only hurt innocent people, but lost important opportunities to teach lessons about the dangers of athletic idolatry, and the need to remember past failures in the effort to keep history from repeating itself. Avoiding those pitfalls, is less about how much Penn State can be made to suffer today, and more about how it can be made to remember the events of its recent past well into the future. On that score, the NCAA missed a very valuable opportunity.


View Photo Gallery: Penn State football was all but dismantled by an NCAA ruling that imposed a mountain of fines and penalties on the university football program and wiped away 111 of coach Joe Paterno’s victories — all of his wins from 1998 to 2011, the period during which, according to the Freeh report, the coach helped cover up allegations of child sexual abuse.

Brad Hirschfield
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  • ThoughtfulGuy

    There are no innocent people at Penn State. They all worshipped at the football altar. All should be punished.

  • katomato

    A major point in the Freeh report is that the Penn State football community is responsible for the circumstances permitting child rape over 14 years. How do you get the Happy Valley community to understand that football outweighed by the magnitude of the crime

    The sanctions are relatively minor–money (bosters will make that up), loss of “victories”(does anyone really care) and reduction of scholarships and bowl appearances (that hurts but football and the culture survives)

    All the Happy Valley folks indentiying how unfair they feel the penalties are should weigh that against the horror of child rape resulting from the close association of a monster with penn state covered up by the penn state leaders .

  • dcm93446

    It seems to me they are throwing out the baby with the bathwater. This will have an effect on a lot of innocent people and assumes the school (the faculty and its students) is the cause of the lack of reporting/cover up of these crimes. A more directed penalty should be applied.

  • CivilUser

    The cover up is a major crime but last time I checked football is not. The shotgun method was used to punish unnecessarily. I’m not sure what the correct punishment should have been but the current one doesn’t seem to fit.

  • dcm93446

    I disagree, there are many innocent people at Penn State including non-football people who will suffer.

  • brwntrt

    PSU will no longer be defined by PSU football, at least for the foreseeable future. That is a good thing.

    Sorry to disappointment you but the NCAA is not the evildoer here. PSU, through its leaders, let the football program, the administration, faculty, students and alumni down. Each of these PSU constituencies shared in their school’s football glory (on the field, in terms of developing integrity, moral character and engaging in a sense of fair play). Now, people protest each of these individual constituencies is being unfairly penalized. However, these constituencies are all part of the entire institution and cannot, and should not, be segregated. It is PSU, as an institution, which has to and should pay the price of its misconduct.

    Vince Lombardi defined the American ethos and its fixation with winning by stating it isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. It finally came to a point where we as a society had to ask at what cost. Today, the NCAA answered that question and I believe the punishment which they levied was appropriate. Regardless of one’s perceptions of the fairness of the punishment, the message of deterrence is now very clear to all institutions with athletic programs.

  • ferricoxide

    This was about more than just Penn State. Many of the really large athletic programs and conferences were chafing at the NCAA’s cut of the pie. This was possibly the NCAA’s last chance to try to lay-out one of the big schools in an attempt to keep collegiate sports from fracturing into autonomous leagues that they’d get no revenue from. This was the NCAA saying “*I* wear the big-boy pants”.

  • aiwaters

    The NCAA used the former FBI’s Director Freech’s mannerism as their guide. As the former FBI director, he seemed appalled, shocked, disgusted and vengeful at Penn State. They simply followed his lead, when you have the country’s leading Police Officer that irate, today happens.Their is no spinning this. Penn State is crippled, period.

  • jdsher00

    Wow. I think Brad Hirschfield is a great thinker, in general, but I found this shocking. A scalpel? As I’ve spent the day saying to people, the NCAA is not to blame for imposing justice on a football program gone completely awry. I’m sorry that it catches the innocent in the crosshairs, but those kids should be blaming the criminals who ran Penn State’s football program for their misfortune, not the NCAA for dispensing a long-overdue modicum of justice. I’m particularly disturbed that a religious leader seems to be more concerned for the continuation of a program than for innocent children. Doesn’t the brake pedal have to be pressed after the car runs over a child, even if stopping makes an innocent passenger late to an appointment? If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought Cardinal Law had written this article.

  • jnik

    Anyone who comments on this topic , and refers to anyone but Sandusky’s victims as “innocent people”, just doesn’t get it. Everyone in town had a hand in this.

  • gbrown4

    Anyone familiar with the NCAA knows that vacating past wins, reducing scholarships, and prohibiting post season play are the normal punishments when a football program loses institutional control. For example, the University of Southern California (USC) was put on probation for lack of institutional control relating to issues relating to just one player, Reggie Bush. Wins were vacated, including a National Championship; they could not play in bowls and lost scholarships. The bowl and scholarship sanctions began in 2010; Reggie Bush played for USC from 2003 – 2005. Not one player in 2010 would have played for USC in 2005. Pete Carroll, the head coach from 2000-2009, knowing the sanctions were coming, moved on to the NFL. Reggie Bush has been making millions playing in the NFL ever since he left USC. Virtually no one associated with the football team in 2010 had any association with the program in 2005! This is the rule, not the exception.

    Penn State would not have suffered any NCAA sanctions had Joe Paterno and other university officials reported Jerry Sandusky to the authorities when they first became aware of what he was doing. This is the message the NCAA is giving. Penn State was put on probation because it benefited from not reporting criminal activity and instead chose to cover it up. The bottom line is that for more than a decade, new child victims were created, abused and raped, all of which could have been prevented, but instead those in charge put their careers and the university’s reputation ahead of the lives of innocent children, all the while racking in millions in cash. This is intolerable; the university must pay a price itself as well as serve as an example to others.

    Current players can stay and play at Penn State, the program was not given the death penalty. Current players can go play somewhere else without having to sit out a year as is the NCAA norm for transfers. Current players can stay at Penn State and just go to school if they

  • larry25

    I’m sorry, but this is a ridiculous article. Collective responsibility is ethical but collective punishment isn’t? That math doesn’t add up. We are talking about the serial rape of children, the coverup of such, and the culture that allowed that to happen. And to talk about innocent people being “punished” is also ridiculous. We’re talking about football. We are talking about a game. So what if current players won’t get to play for a national championship? That makes them no different than a player at a non-BCS conference like Boise State. Deal with it. Children were raped. Shut up about how unfair it is that for current players and students. Either stay and get a degree from what is still an academically great university, or transfer somewhere else.

    Some people are cheering the NCAA for their toughness, but I think Mike Wise got it right–the NCAA is actually sending the wrong message. SMU gets their football program suspended for two years for grade-fixing and payments to players, and Penn State doesn’t for turning it’s back on children and then covering up child rape? What message does that send? That trying to gain a recruiting edge in football is more heinous than raping a child and covering up the crime? That’s exactly the message, as well as that you will be treated differently if you are a major university with a long history of football greatness and multiple championships than if you are an upstart like SMU–or Boise St., or TCU or anyone else without such a pedigree.

    We are talking about the rape of children. That’s all we should be talking about. Football is nothing compared to that.

  • SODDI

    Now, what about the crimes covered up for OTHER major (and minor) college football teams? You know, the rapes, the serious assaults, the vehicular homicides… the ones the colleges’ staffs and administrations covered up, where victims were paid off with alumni funds.

  • PSU Alumni and Student for Child Rights

    As a PSU Alumnus, I don’t understand your column. Rabbi, I have no idea what your commentary has to do with religion, and I don’t understand why you feel the need to defend the indefensible. As an institution, PSU consistently failed in their duties to defend LITTLE CHILDREN, while members (note plural) of the PSU football program and its leaders looked the other way.

    A few months ago, we remembered the Holocaust. One of the responses by the world to the inaction and lack of decisiveness during the Holocaust was the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is an agreement by all nations (including the United States) to ensure universal human rights and dignity for all, including the most vulnerable among us our children – it also has the nations of the world agreeing to ensure the safety of our children. These fundamental values were one of the ways that the world would say Never Again.

    But here in the United States, for a period of over 13 years, PSU football coaches, the head coach Joe Paterno, and leaders of the PSU systematically rejected these fundamental children’s rights and human responsibilities that the nations of the world agreed upon. Their actions to look the other way and ignore this threat to our children was not only a violation of human rights and dignity, but also a violation of human decency. They chose to put their football program and their public relations above these shared values of people around the world.

    There isn’t a punishment severe enough for them. As a PSU alumnus, my disgust and rejection of their actions is only matched by my contrition and shame at my alma mater’s behavior before and after these conscienceless deeds were discovered. They do not represent the generations of PSU alumni with integrity and human decency who came before them, and the many PSU alumni who have priorities on human rights and dignity today.

    All PSU should say is “I’m sorry.” And I am sorry, as a PSU Alumnus.

    The incredible

  • PSU Alumni and Student for Child Rights

    As an institution, PSU consistently failed in their duties to defend LITTLE CHILDREN, while members (note plural) of the PSU football program and its leaders looked the other way.

    As a PSU Alumnus, I don’t understand the Rabbi’s column and why he feels the need to defend the indefensible.

    A few months ago, we remembered the Holocaust. One of the responses by the world to the inaction and lack of decisiveness during the Holocaust was the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is an agreement by all nations (including the United States) to ensure universal human rights and dignity for all, including the most vulnerable among us our children – it also has the nations of the world agreeing to ensure the safety of our children. These fundamental values were one of the ways that the world would say Never Again.

    But here in the United States, for a period of over 13 years, PSU football coaches, the head coach Joe Paterno, and leaders of the PSU systematically rejected these fundamental children’s rights and human responsibilities that the nations of the world agreed upon. Their actions to look the other way and ignore this threat to our children was not only a violation of human rights and dignity, but also a violation of human decency. They chose to put their football program and their public relations above these shared values of people around the world.

    There isn’t a punishment severe enough for them. As a PSU alumnus, my disgust and rejection of their actions is only matched by my contrition and shame at my alma mater’s behavior before and after these conscienceless deeds were discovered. They do not represent the generations of PSU alumni with integrity and human decency who came before them, and the many PSU alumni who have priorities on human rights and dignity today.

    All PSU should say is “I’m sorry.” And I am sorry, as a PSU Alumnus.

    The incredible arrogance of anyone supporting PSU who would question the NCAA’s authority is bre

  • cricket44

    Glad to see the tenor of most responses here. I’ve said this elsewhere but I’ll say it again: Rationalizations are seductive things.

    Phrases such as “overkill” “witch hunt” “vengeance” “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” ” using a bomb when they needed a scalpel” have no place in this shameful episode and it’s appalling that they would even enter into anyone’s thought process.

    The parent of a disappointed would-be PSU football player now has the responsibility to point out to their young adult that the consequences of people looking the other way to “not rock the boat” when there is true evil at play are far-reaching and hurt many. And THAT is where the blame lies. Not with the NCAA.

    The “innocent victims” here are the children scarred for life. To put the focus ANYWHERE else is offensive in the extreme.

  • haveaheart

    “But why its current players and those playing over the coming four years should also be banned from playing in those games is beyond me. They did nothing wrong and some of them are not yet even on the team! . . . Why could they not have allowed Penn State to play in those games but deny them the revenue from them? That would have afforded the players and staff, who are blameless, the opportunity to distinguish themselves without allowing the school as an institution to profit from their achievement.”

    You couldn’t be more wrong, Rabbi.

    It’s not just about the money. It’s about dismantling a culture that has been allowed to grow far too massively and gobble up everything in its wake — including morality and ethical behavior.

    It’s about mandating that the program begin afresh, which will allow it to go forward in the coming years without the taint of the Paterno legacy.

    Can you really not see that this is a good thing?

    The NCAA made sure to include provisions to protect all of those players you’re so worried about. They’ll be able to stay at Penn if their primary objective is to get an education, but they’ll also be free to take offers from other schools without the regulation 1-year waiting period if they want a better chance of getting seen by big-league recruiters.

    Frankly, in any scenario involving child sexual abuse, a scalpel is NEVER adequate. I’m surprised at the unethical stance you’re taking here.