Penn State Penalties: A No-Win Situation

The NCAA finally dropped the hammer on Penn State earlier today, slapping the university with a $60 million fine, a four-year ban from bowl games, a reduction in scholarships and several other punitive measures as part of the fallout from the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

I’m sure some folks will argue that the penalty isn’t strong enough. Others will say it was too stringent and that it punished people who had nothing to do with the tragedy in the first place. But I’m here to tell you that both sides are wrong.

Not strong enough

In the days since the Freeh report was released, rumors have swirled that the death penalty was a possibility for the Penn State football program, which would essentially have been shut down for anywhere from one to four years. Instead, the NCAA chose to levy that huge fine and donate the funds to child abuse organizations, and block the Nittany Lions from postseason play.

Now, you can argue that college athletics are exploiting amateur athletes for corporate gain and that sports have (unfairly) become more important than academics at the big-time institutions. To me, that’s a subject for a different day. Shutting down the entire football program would certainly have sent a message, but it would have punished players who were kids themselves when Sandusky’s abuse was happening. New players, new coaches, new team personnel — banning them does nothing to undo the hurt that was inflicted more than a decade ago. It’s a symbolic gesture that only serves to make people feel better. Somehow the NCAA (which typically screws things up in most cases) managed to get this right: The association used a more targeted approach rather than carpet bombing the entire university.

Too strong

The opposite side includes two groups: Those who think the NCAA should have been more lenient to the current Penn State regime, and those who are part of the current Penn State regime.

Let’s get to the former first. The NCAA traditionally sucks at doling out penalties. They refuse to pay college student-athletes any portion of their enormous cash cow, then drop suspensions and postseason bans on universities whose students make small mistakes like selling jerseys or eating dinner with the wrong person. And admittedly, it’s hard to separate those slap-on-the-wrist punishments from something like this, where any football penalty seems inadequate in the grand scheme of things.

Some folks probably believe that hitting the current program with these measures is too harsh for people who had nothing to do with it. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but an example had to be set for all college administrations. If the NCAA had done nothing, it would essentially be saying that these activities are okay, when they are decidedly not.

As for the other group, let’s be clear: This sucks for the students at Penn State. Joe Paterno was idolized there, and a lot of Nittany Lions probably feel like this entire investigation reflects poorly on them, even though it’s not really connected.

That said, it’s hard to look on the situation impartially and not think that some folks are being ridiculous. Remember when students rioted as the news first broke and held vigils outside Paterno’s house? What seemed like solidarity then looks like naivete now that we know of Paterno’s involvement.

It almost seems like there’s a disconnect between the bubble surrounding Penn State and the outside world. People inside that bubble want to be supportive of their school, and it’s hard to blame them for that when only a few bad apples have spoiled the entire university’s image. It’s a circle-the-wagons approach. Unfortunately, in their passionate defense of their school, a lot of Penn State students and athletes have ended up sounding callous instead.

A former Penn State football player and current board of directors member summed up that disconnect perfectly in a tweet from this morning, talking about an injury he suffered playing for Paterno in 2000:

“NCAA says games didn’t exist. I got the metal plate in my neck to prove it did..I almost died playing 4 PSU..punishment or healing?!? #WeAre.”

Yes, a severe injury is unfortunate, and his ability to lead a regular, functioning life afterward is borderline inspiring. But Taliaferro chose to play in a sport where violent injuries happen all the time. Jerry Sandusky’s victims had no choice. The sooner Penn State supporters stop marginalizing that fact, the sooner they’ll sound less deplorable.

Like a lot of things in life, sometimes there isn’t a perfect solution that makes everyone happy and rights all the wrongs. Given the circumstances and the choices they had to work with, the NCAA hit Penn State with the right amount of punishment. It will never undo the damage that Jerry Sandusky and other high-ranking people at the university did. But maybe it will be another important step on the road to closure for those who were affected.

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