Worse than a death penalty.
That's how some college sports experts have been characterizing the NCAA's sanctions against Penn State announced this morning.
A death penalty would have decommissioned the university's vaunted football program for a year or so, and was widely assumed to be the likely punishment for Penn State's institutionalized indifference towards repeated allegations of Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of children.
More than $60 million dollars in fines later, the nullification of several years of prior records, plus the stripping of legendary coach Joe Paterno's "winningest coach" sobriquet, and indeed, Penn State is probably wishing it had only been penalized a couple of years of football.
Cult of Denial
Paterno's family has already announced that they are going to mount a vigorous defense of their patriarch's legacy in light of the Louis Freeh report that Penn State commissioned and served as the basis for the NCAA's ruling. And frankly, since the Freeh report is not the same as a jury verdict in a court of law, and since Paterno is no longer here to defend himself, it's not surprising nor particularly pig-headed of a close-knit family like his to rise to his defense. Even if they don't seem to fully appreciate what he didn't do.
It's the same with Penn State's fans and others in the sports world who maintain that penalties punishing anybody other than the university's top officials are unfair. Their logic comes from the assumption that team leaders bear sole responsibility for what happens both on and off the playing field. Which, of course, is true, at least in terms of how the mechanics of their sport are executed. After all, you can't blame a team's fans when a pass is intercepted, can you?
However, within sports in general, and college football in particular, there seems to be a cult of denial regarding the extent to which fans propel and dominate the ethos of their teams.
You'll recall that Penn State's former president Graham Spanier, former vice president Gary Schultz, and athletic director Tim Curley have been implicated in this scandal not because of what Sandusky did, but because they allegedly tried to cover it up. And were he still alive, Paterno might be facing a criminal trial himself. Not because of what Sandusky did, but because on the multiple occasions he heard allegations about his prized assistant coach, Paterno allegedly refused to pursue the truth.
Let's face it: most parents would expect that if their child's youth sports coach was confronted with claims that an assistant coach was molesting children, the head coach would swiftly get to the root of the allegations. Is that was Paterno did? The Freeh report, based on hundreds of interviews and reams of data, concludes that he did not.
And why not? Freeh claims that a "culture of reverence" insulated Paterno and Penn State officials from any perceived culpability in what Sandusky may or may not have been doing. Paterno and his staff, after all, weren't mere volunteer youth sports coaches.
And what built and perpetuated that "culture of reverence?" Penn State's fan base. Fans who pay for game day tickets, who watch games on television, who purchase memorabilia, and donate to the school. Fans who send their kids to Penn State because of its storied football program. Fans who send their kids to Penn State to study at a school famous for its football and the lucrative opportunities that very football program provides the campus community.
It's been said that there was no "Penn State" before Joe Paterno. And now, perhaps, the Penn State that the college sports industry has grown to idolize may be no more. It certainly won't be the same Penn State when its football team takes to the field later this season.
Indeed, football will still be played this fall in State College, Pennsylvania. But Paterno's statue won't stand beside Beaver Stadium, and plenty of Penn State fans will be just as livid about that as they are the NCAA's ruling against their team. But like the Freeh report, the NCAA isn't making a ruling just against Penn State. The NCAA is saying that college sports can be a great thing, but it's not the only thing. College sports needs to be enjoyed relative to its purpose in American society.
And that purpose is less grandiose than fans mistakenly laud it to be, and weighted with far more obligation even to children too young to be Penn State students.
If Paterno and his superiors - indeed, if anyone was more powerful at Penn State than JoePa - had reacted with integrity upon the first allegations against Sandusky, things would have been markedly different. Even if Sandusky had covered his tracks flawlessly, at least Penn State's officials would have proven that they were serious about justice.
But. They. Did. Nothing.
Except ignore it. Repeatedly.
Can We Handle the Truth?
If they had bothered to vet the allegations way back when, and discovered the truth, Sandusky would have faced criminal charges, and it would have been an unpleasant revelation for the school. But the NCAA would likely have had little reason to instigate any punishments for Penn State. Even if the school investigated, and Sandusky managed to hide his tracks, the NCAA wouldn't have much reason to punish Penn State. After all, it's not a crime to investigate allegations and rumors with due diligence and fail to uncover the truth.
Yet nobody in charge wanted to know the truth, did they? And why didn't anybody want to know the truth? Because of how they feared the truth might damage their image. Their rapport with their fans. Their ability to be heroes in the the college football industry.
Sadly, it appears that somewhere along the way, these men lost their understanding of what a hero is. A hero isn't somebody who ignores what's ugly. A hero is somebody who confronts what's ugly and deals with it honestly.
It's no wonder that Penn State's fans don't like the pain being inflicted on them right now. It's hard enough to assume responsibility for one's own actions, and even harder when as a member of a much larger group of people, you are forced to realize how your attitude has helped shape the negative behavior of others.
True, Sandusky can't blame Penn State's fans for his crimes against children.
But Paterno, Spanier, Schultz, and Curley effectively blamed Penn State's fans as the reason for ignoring the mounting charges against Sandusky. And judging by the reaction of fans to the indictment of Sandusky this past winter, and their reaction in the wake of his trial, the NCAA at least agrees on this one point with those men.
Since fans participated - however indirectly - in the deception, they deserve to share in the fallout.
The sooner fans of all sports learn this lesson, the better our society can become. As an institution of higher learning, Penn State is our living laboratory.