Most people probably expected the National Collegiate Athletic Association to hit Penn State with harsh penalties for the disgraceful ongoing cover-up of assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assaults on children. But many were undoubtedly shocked at just how tough the NCAA was.
It wasn’t the death penalty – outright suspension of the football program – but Penn State got the most severe punishment in NCAA history: a $60 million fine, voidance of its football victories for the past 14 seasons, banishment from postseason bowl games for four years, reduction of player scholarships from 25 to 15. The disgrace of once-revered football coach Joe Paterno that began with his firing was completed with the nullification of wins. The late coach went from all-time winningest to a mere 12th on the all-time list.
It’s almost impossible not to have mixed feelings about the punishment.
On the one hand, its seems overly harsh because it punishes far more people than the ones who in any way had anything to do with the cover-up of Sandusky’s monstrous behavior – everybody from merchants who depend on Penn State football to kids who want to go there to join the team and students whose education could be threatened when the university’s money starts drying up. Our sense of fair play demands that we hold people accountable for their actions but try to limit the collateral damage our instruments of justice might inflict on innocent bystanders.
On the other hand, maybe it would have been better for the NCAA to hit Penn State with the death penalty, banned the program altogether so the university could go on to become some other kind of institution than a Big Ten football powerhouse. For one thing, the decided-on punishment is really a death penalty, too, just one calling for a long, drawn-out death instead of a quick one. For another, the death penalty would send the message that as important as college sports have become, there are limits to our tolerance of tails that wag dogs. No program’s reputation or institution’s legacy is justification for the lack of simple human decency that could have prevented much of the sexual abuse Sandusky committed.
The willful blindness of Paterno and other Penn State officials seems brutally callous, but the truth is that it happens all the time. Too often too many of us find that looking the other way and not getting involved is the preferred option. The Penn State case is a reminder that, should our consciences not be up to the job, our self-interest should at least make us realize there are penalties for silence. Joe Paterno won his victories over 40 distinguished years. All it took to destroy everything was to look away one time.