Punishing “Penn State”

It may have made many feel good to see the NCAA punish “Penn State” as they did, but the penalty was egregious, purposeless, and hit the innocent rather than the guilty.

Again I must start a Penn State post with acknowledgement of the horrifying acts committed by Jerry Sandusky, and express deep empathy for the victims.

Sandusky and those who enabled him either have been or will be punished, severely.  But what about the “institution”, known as “Pennsylvania State University”, what should happen to “it”?  It is not a person, after all.  It is a university, a school, an institution.  It is a holding place for students, faculty, and an administration that changes over time.

The NCAA saw fit to impose the following sanctions:

1.  A $60 million fine.

2.  4 year post-season ban (no bowl games).

3.  Vacated all Penn State football wins back to 1998 (making Bobby Bowden of Florida State, not Joe Paterno of Penn State, the winningest coach in college football history).

4.  20 scholarships eliminated.

On the surface this seems like a reasonable penalty.  But on further reflection, who is punished by these penalties?  Who loses as a result of them?

The answer is, all the wrong people.  The losers are the innocent students, alumni, and players of Penn State.

If one reads the detailed report by Louis Freeh on the Penn State tragedy (found here), there are 5 individual villains, and one “committee villain”.  The individuals are of course Jerry Sandusky; the President of the University Graham Spanier; the Athletic Director Tim Curley; the Vice President of Operations Gary Schultz; and Head Coach Joe Paterno (note:  based on the details in the report, Freeh barely scratched Joe Paterno, and the coach’s involvement continues to be unfairly exaggerated).  The “committee” villain is the Penn State Board of Trustees.

Excluding the NCAA penalties, what happened or will happen to these villains?  Spanier, Curley, and Schultz have lost their jobs, will go on trial for perjury and obstruction and endangering minors, and will spend the rest of their lives in jail, court, fighting lawsuits, and in disgrace.  They are ruined men, as well they should be.  Joe Paterno is dead, and he has been slandered well beyond his level of guilt.  His reputation is in tatters (again, unfairly in my mind), his statue was taken down, his record as the winningest coach is gone. (note:  His statue was taken down, but the millions he donated to build the library and other buildings somehow will not be returned.).  Sandusky is in prison and will never see the light of day again.

The Trustees have been wiped out, and all new leadership is in place.

Why, then, does the NCAA feel the need to punish Penn State further?  Not one of their punishments effects the guilty parties.  The guilty are gone, ruined, disgraced, and soon to be broke or dead or in a jail cell.

Who do the NCAA penalties effect?  First and most importantly, the 75 or so current players for Penn State.  They came to play for one of the great coaches in history at one of the great football programs and university’s in this country, and now sit on a ruined program for at least the next 4 years.  The NCAA kindly allows them to transfer, but anyone with a college-aged child knows the trauma involved in such a situation (10 have decided to transfer so far).   These young men had nothing to do with the acts of Jerry Sandusky, or the President of the University, or anyone else.

Who else do they effect?  The athletes in all sports at Penn State, male and female.  The football program funds the majority of other sports on campus, and penalizing the football program penalizes them all.  So add up all the student athletes at Penn State and see how many are being punished for something they had nothing to do with.  What role did these people play in Sandusky’s acts?  None.

And who else?  Alumni, fans, and the Penn State student body.  What did these people do wrong?

What about the players on the teams since 1998, 14 years worth of teams likely making up thousands of athletes who busted their backsides to play football for their school and to defeat their opponents?  How does it serve these players to vacate their wins?  What did they do wrong??

Many people, and the NCAA itself, felt the need to punish someone or something.  They couldn’t touch the villains at the university, and so they decided to punish the university itself, as if it was a person.  Instead, all it did was punish thousands of innocent people with who hold no guilt whatsoever.


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5 Responses to Punishing “Penn State”

  1. Teddy says:

    I don’t know a whole lot, but isn’t this what happens for major violations or crimes within the NCAA? Didn’t Michigan basketball get affected as a whole for the actions of a few? Ohio state had their victories vacated for the Tressel memorabilia scandal, but surely many players who weren’t involved, but broke their backs, as it were, now have their victories erased.

    I think part of the problem with the Penn State scandal is the football program itself and the attitudes around it. Like when Gordon Gee, the OSU president, was asked about firing Tressel he said, “I hope Tressel doesn’t fire me.” This is the kind of culture that exists at a lot of universities and one that obviously existed at Penn State. IMHO, you have to do something to show that this kind of insular and football-above-all attitude is wrong. It is more than just the actions of a few at play here. I don’t know enough about football or the NCAA’s past penalties to say that Penn State’s punishments are right, but just going after Paterno, Spanier, Curly, and Schultz is not enough. Somewhere in the punishment must be a message to fans, players, coaches and alumni, of all universities, that says greatness and prestige of football programs should always be second to the rules of society.

    • vofreason says:

      I understand the cultural issue in college football (it’s what makes it great in many ways, but also creates problems), but again the NCAA misses the mark on this. I don’t think what they have done will change the culture of college football at all. What this incident has done, however, is surely make big college football programs look closely at their governance policies to ensure they are air-tight. This is a good thing, but if we wanted to identify what incented them to do so based on the Penn State incident, it would be based on the following: 1. A desire to do things right and prevent any major occurances such as the Penn State one… 2. Avoid being fired, sued, jailed, disgraced, and loss of income… and a distant, distant 3rd would be the NCAA sanctions. Because by the time the sanctions hit, you are gone anyway (just as Sandusky, Schultz, Spanier, Paterno, and Curley were gone prior to the NCAA sanctions. The only impact the NCAA sanctions had on them is they won’t be watching bowl games in prison (or in Paterno’s case, in Heaven) on January 1 for the next 4 years.

      The idea of “punishing the fans” or “punishing the alumni” simply doesn’t hold weight with me. It is a shotgun approach that wounds 10’s of thousands of innocents for every 1 guilty it hits. And as for the way the players are punished, an appropriate analogy is…. a sister breaks curfew the night before she leaves for college, she leaves the next day, so we ground her little sister for what the older one did.

      These sanctions make many feel good. People argue they weren’t even severe enough. I think they do almost nothing except harm. I agree, by the way, that this is true in many sanction situations with the NCAA…the people who are hurt are usually the ones who are left behind by the guilty parties. It needs to be fixed.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. ezekiel856 says:

    I disagree here. I think Penn State as an institution let down and punished every stakeholder who put faith in the organization and those entrusted with maintaining its integrity. The NCAA is not the bad guy punishing Penn State, Penn State is merely receiving the consequences of its own actions.

    In my opinion, the sanctions could have gone further. The silver lining is that this allows people to understand that association with individuals and institutions lacking values has consequences, and as a result maybe every single person (not just management but students and athletes and parents and staff employees) will ask more questions and demand higher standards going forward. This is a (belated) opportunity to effect a true cultural revolution at Penn State and other universities, companies, and organizations everywhere. And I think we should be commending the NCAA for its leadership in attempting to make this statement, even if they stopped short of gutting the football program entirely (which I believe is in fact that sign of compassion to stakeholders you are appealing for).

    A lesser slap on the wrist would have been a tragedy in its own right, owing to its lack of deterrent factor and paradigm-changing indication. It was impossible to come out of this situation with minimal trauma. Saving one young person’s life in the future is worth the short-term trauma of college athletes and students, who I am confident will make a resilient recovery from these negative consequences they have found themselves in recompense for. No, it is not fair to them, but the concept of fairness was eliminated years before the NCAA stepped in, and I believe we should be rightly pointing the finger at the true forfeiters of this fairness.

    I applaud the NCAA and lament all the collateral damage, but the only one we have to blame for that is the Penn State institution and those tasked with defining it.

    • vofreason says:

      Steve, you make a very cogent argument here, and while you are voicing similar opinions of other defenders of the NCAA’s action, you take it deeper and express it more thoughtfully. However, you haven’t convinced me : )

      It’s the addressing of “Penn State” as an entity as you do, and as the NCAA did, that throws me. There were 4 major culprits here in my mind, as well as a Board of Trustees that failed to do its job. The “culture” surrounding football at Penn State is similar to that of maybe 30 other schools, and arguably up to 100 of them at all division levels. I find it healthy for the most part, with some disturbing aspects but acceptable ones in general. And, in my opinion, with the penalties imposed on Penn State, none of this will change at the 100 universities. What will change behavior at them is that the Presidents of these Universities, the AD’s, and the coaches will scour their programs for problems like that of Sandusky. They will do this scouring not because they don’t want sanctions on the school, because that would be the least of their problems. They would be fired, the sanctions would have zero impact on them whatsoever. Like in Penn State, these officials would be going to jail, fired, disgraced, etc. NCAA penalties did nothing to Curley, Spanier, or Sandusky– they are not the least consideration for them as they have far bigger problems.

      This penalty by the NCAA reminds me of how entire companies are destroyed because of the actions of a few. Emotional prosecutions/penalties/sanctions/indictments driven in the passion of the moment destroy entities. Take Arthur Anderson. It had 85,000 employees worldwide, and a team of about 10 working at Enron as their auditor. When the Enron scandal broke, everyone decried “Arthur Anderson Consulting”, charges were filed, customers fled, and the company ceased to exist. (note the firm was found guilty of obstruction of justice, a verdict that was later overturned by the US Supreme Court…so, in summary, not guilty– but ruined). So 84,900 employees lost their jobs because of the actions of 10. The object was to penalize an “institution” as if it was a person, without consideration of the consequences on the 84,900. Everyone celebrated the initial guilty verdict of AA, except of course for the 84,900 employees and their spouses and children, who suddenly found themselves unemployed. By your argument they are just like the students, they’ll “land on their feet”. That’s much easier for us to say since we aren’t one of the students, or one of the parents of the students, or one of the unemployed AA employees or a family member dependent on them.

      Thanks again for your response and for continuing to read my blog! Dan

      • vofreason says:

        Steve, I thought you would be interested in this article about Penn State. I have to say when I read the Freeh report (which I did, cover to cover) it seems to be very poorly done. It has way too much pablum and while it does have many facts, it seems to be selective in its use of them when drawing conclusions. Several things bothered me in it, most importantly the way they treated Joe Paterno. They had no real hard evidence of him knowing or being significantly involved in the situation, only hearsay references to conversations with him (e.g. “AD Curley said he reviewed the situation with the coach and he was on board”). Another one that really bothered me was some of the primary evidence of a culture of putting football above everything was the fact that 4 custodians actually saw the assaults in full light, and didn’t report them because they thought they would be fired. To Freeh, this was a condemnation of the University and college football culture. To me, this should have been a condemnation of the custodians and they should be put on trial for child endangerment.

        Anyway, here’s the article:

        Penn State faculty group disputes NCAA sanctions

        PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Former Penn State faculty leaders blasted the NCAA and former FBI director Louis Freeh on Tuesday over their handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal, saying Freeh’s report – prepared for the university – and the NCAA’s $60 million in fines unfairly punish the entire university community.

        The scholars said Freeh used “scant evidence” to support conclusions that the NCAA then relied upon and “embellishe(d)” to set sanctions that harmed not just the athletic department but Penn State’s academics well-being and financial health.

        “On a foundation of scant evidence, the report adds layers of conjecture and supposition to create a portrait of fault, complicity, and malfeasance that could well be at odds with the truth,” said the statement, signed by 29 past chairs of the faculty senate.

        Freeh defended his work Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press. Addressing specific criticism that his team did not interview Mike McQueary and other key witnesses, Freeh said his team respected requests by state prosecutors to rely on their grand jury testimony. McQueary is the graduate assistant who saw Sandusky, a former assistant football coach, in the shower with a boy in 2001.

        “We did not interview him; that was at the request of the attorney general,” Freeh said. “Some of the people we normally would have interviewed, we were asked by the prosecutors not to do so.”

        “We stand very strongly behind our report,” Freeh said.

        His 267-page report concluded that failures of leadership, an intense football culture and an unbending desire to protect the university’s reputation all served to enable Sandusky as he molested young boys for years. Sandusky, a longtime defensive coordinator, was convicted in June of abusing 10 boys, some in the locker room showers.

        Freeh’s findings have come under fire from ousted school president Graham Spanier, the family of late football coach Joe Paterno and the two university officials charged with perjury and failing to report the abuse complaints.

        The NCAA sanctions also include a four-year ban on bowl games.

        The faculty leaders took special issue with the NCAA, saying it jumped to conclusions in finding the school had a long history of putting football over academics. The former teachers said they had hundreds of years of collective experience at Penn State and had never been asked to change grades for athletes or approve of phantom courses or majors.

        “Not only are these assertions about the Penn State culture unproven, but we declare them to be false,” the statement said. The signers include former engineering professors Richard G. Cunningham, who led the faculty senate in 1967-68, and Jean Landa Pytel, who led the group in 2010-2011.

        The NCAA did not immediately return a call for comment.

        Neither Paterno nor Spanier were charged in the case, although both lost their jobs. Paterno died of lung cancer in January.

        Sandusky is awaiting sentencing. Former school vice president Gary Schultz and former athletic director Tim Curley are awaiting trial on the perjury and failure to report charges. They have pleaded not guilty.

        “The shock of the crimes that occurred here clearly underlines the need for greater vigilance and stronger policies. However, the sweeping and unsupported generalizations by the Freeh Group … and the NCAA do not provide a satisfactory basis for productive change,” the faculty group wrote.

        Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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