Thursday, July 12, 2012

Penn State Death Penalty for Whom?

Today, a lot of people are talking about the death penalty.

Not capital punishment, mind you; although some people probably would advocate for that as well.

No, the death penalty of note today deals with Penn State and the latest blockbuster verdict:  not the court's jury decision earlier last month, but the Louis Freeh inquiry into what which Penn State officials knew about the Jerry Sandusky travesty, and when they knew it.

Turns out, for years, Penn State officials from legendary football coach Joe Paterno to athletic director Tim Curley and president Graham Spanier knew things were wrong with Sandusky and his charity, the Second Mile.  But according to multiple, credible witnesses, they did absolutely nothing except hope none of it was true.

Turns out, what many Penn State boosters hoped was true about their alma mater - that nobody in charge knew anything - was what wasn't true.  And as the report Penn State itself commissioned in the wake of this stunning abuse scandal plainly proves, the drive to preserve the sanctimony of college football at one of the greatest college football programs in history was all-encompassing, all-surpassing, and all-consuming.

Football was greater than moral accountability, moral responsibility, and moral reckoning.  In fact, Paterno's legendary focus on ethics and integrity at Penn State, over which a shroud of suspicion had gathered during the past few months of speculation before and during Sandusky's criminal trial, now seems like one big farce.

A joke.

Maybe even a grand smokescreen for what he really knew:  one of his star employees was a cruel pervert.

Which brings up the question:  now that we know what Paterno and everybody else in leadership knew, what kind of punishment should befall the storied football program at Penn State?  After all, something like this can't simply be brushed under the carpet before the upcoming season.

Should that punishment consist of Penn State's beloved football team being forbidden to play at all?  That's what the "death penalty" is in college football, administered by the NCAA.  No football team, no football staff, no football games.  Nothing.  For a period of at least several years.

Some fans have argued - as they do whenever any semblance of a death penalty is considered as punishment for significant infractions to the rules - that it's unfair to penalize all of the players and coaches who had nothing whatsoever to do with Sandusky's being able to get away with abusing children.  Students who adore the football traditions at Penn State would be punished along with the guilty administrators if their team wasn't allowed to play.

And for the short-sighted, this argument makes sense.  No, it's not particularly fair to punish people who didn't even know children and their parents were making claims against one of their celebrated assistant coaches, or that people who should have done something to stop Sandusky didn't.

But consider the reasons why those administrators, including Paterno, did nothing.  It wasn't just for their own reputations and jobs.  It was because their reputations and jobs came - in varying degrees, of course - from their celebrated football program.  And who celebrated the football program?  The fans:  players, alumni, the media, the advertisers... college football doesn't exist in a vacuum.

And it doesn't have an altruistic view of money.

People who feared their reputations would be tarnished by pursuing the allegations against Sandusky knew the logic of their fears came from college football fans who would vilify them for even suggesting something as awful as child abuse was going on at Penn State.  Just look at the near-riots the campus experienced when the case against Sandusky was announced last fall.  Sports frenzies, and especially in football, can feed on themselves; everybody loves a winner, and hates a loser.  And it wasn't like somebody was caught doping, or smuggling alcohol into the locker room.  Child abuse is - and rightly so - an explosive charge that becomes even more devastating when proven in a court of law.

What is the extent to which fans, players, and alumni are culpable in contributing to this frenzy?  It's hard to say, but it's obviously quite significant.  Otherwise, there would be no wildly popular football program like Penn State's.

So it stands to reason that the NCAA's potential ruling for the death penalty against this school does, in fact, rightly reverberate through the entire community of football-loving Penn Staters.

Cover-ups are proof that the people who fund something won't react favorably if they learn the truth.  Otherwise, why bother with a cover-up?  And who funds the wildly successful phenomenon of college football?  Its fans.

Just yesterday, Paterno's family released a letter the former coach had penned just before his death, in which he scoffs at the notion that anything Sandusky might have done amounted to a football scandal.  That may have been Paterno's opinion, but it also betrays his profound ignorance of the role fan pressure plays in the management of sports programs, particularly at the college level.  Even if you want to desperately believe this is not a football scandal, after today's publication of Freeh's report, Paterno's letter is too little, much too late.

Besides, it's not like death penalties by the NCAA against college sports programs last forever anyway.  They might seem like a long time, but in reality, they're not nearly as long as the length of time Sandusky's victims will have to deal with what he did to them.

They'll likely carry those scars until they die.

A death penalty of sorts they surely did not deserve.

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