There have been numerous calls in recent to severely punish or outright end the Penn State football program for covering up Jerry Sandusky's crimes, but we shouldn't be too quick to punish others for the sins of an handful of corrupt old men.
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The Freeh Report that was released last week demolished the legacy of head coach Joe Paterno, laying out the damning case of long and sad cover up that allowed Sandusky to abuse children for years after the first accusations. The four men directly implicated in the crime all lost their jobs. Two have already been charged with perjury, a third is likely to be, and civil and criminal cases involving them and the university may last for years. Paterno is dead, unable to answer for his crimes except in editorials and art works.
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Yet, there is still a wish among many to see the school punished still further for creating a culture of arrogance and entitlement that allowed Sandsky to abuse young boys without fear of reprisal. That's only natural. For a crime so terrible, no punishment seems harsh enough, which is why many have called for the team to be is banned. Perhaps even permanently.
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Christine Brennan of USA Today called for it almost as soon at the Freeh Report was done printing. The AP did it. Sport's grumpiest old man Buzz Bissinger did it. CBS Sports thinks so too. A couple of our friends at The Atlantic agreed.
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Most have called for the NCAA to step in and issue its most powerful, yet rarely used sanction — the death penalty. Despite its unofficial nickname, the "death penalty" doesn't actually kill a sports program but it might as well. It bars teams from all competition for a year or two, which is all it takes to reduce a once-powerful juggernaut to a perennial also-ran. Southern Methodist was a top football program when it received its notorious two-year ban in 1988. Nearly 25 years later it still hasn't fully recovered, watching from the back benches as its former peers reaped the benefits of the football's financial explosion over the last two decades. However, SMU was punished for breaking the rules of sport, not criminal laws. And "killing" SMU hardly eliminated cheating in college football.
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There are ways of dealing with Penn State that were not available in the SMU case and those ways are already in motion. Criminal cases against two officials are pending. More are likely on the way. The civil lawsuits could be record-setting. The university will be punished, even if some feel that it won't go far enough. They want the whole culture of corruption removed from Penn State specifically and college athletics in general.
Most don't seem to fully grasp the impact that a full death penalty would have not just on the football program, but the entire community, even beyond State College, Pennsylvania. As at most schools, the football program pays for the rest of the athletic department, so removing its subsidy would mean that other teams might be eliminated altogether or have their budgets slashed. Athletes would either be stranded at a school without sports or forced to transfer to a second- or third-choice university, interrupting both their academic and athletic careers.
Without football, the school would likely have to drop out of the Big Ten, costing millions more in TV money, merchandising rights, and NCAA Basketball Tournament and bowl payouts. Every team that has a home or televised game against PSU would have to reschedule or cancel games, potentially costing those other schools millions too.
Dozens, if not hundreds of athletic department employees would lose their jobs. Without the extra fall tourists, many businesses in State College would shrink or close. Donations to the university — not just the football team, which is used as bait to lure big donors who then give to science departments and new dorms — would dry up, hurting almost every department on campus. Applications and enrollments would drop, depressing revenue even further.
Proponents of some form of "death penalty" say that is the entire point. The school must be hit where it hurts the most. If football's power over Penn State led to Sandusky's atrocities, then football must be eliminated. But if football's influence over higher education is the problem, it's not just a Penn State problem. Eliminating the Nittany Lions would be a way to pretend the problem doesn't exist anymore and everyone everywhere else can go back to tailgating.
College football coaches are powerful, because people make them that way. Let's be clear: What Joe Paterno did was a grave abuse of power and privilege and there is no excuse for that. But that power was not unearned. Football has provided tremendous benefits to Penn State and State College over the last five decades (as it does at so many other schools across the country) and Paterno was primarily responsible for that. He was the most important person on that campus, because no individual was more important to its success — and few people had a problem with that before they learned about what Sandusky had done.
(It's also worth noting that Paterno's 45-year reign at the head of one program was an anomaly. With or without the scandal, it is unlikely to be repeated in the modern era of sport.)
If you want to sign onto the idea that everyone who works at Penn State or worshiped Nittany Lion football is as responsible for these crimes as Paterno was, then (as The Nation's Dave Zirin has suggested) so is every journalist who ever wrote a glowing article about him, every shoe company that ever gave him an endorsement, every TV station that ever broadcast one of his games, and every fan who ever rooted for any college football team anywhere. Didn't we all have a hand in inflating the importance of his game?
Many people who amass that kind of power have a tendency to abuse it, whether they're a football coach, a teacher, a CEO, or a senator. That does not mean it's always our fault for giving them that power. Or that no one should be allowed to have power again. We don't disband governments because some of our leaders become corrupt. We didn't eliminate banks because some bankers created economic problem. We didn't eliminate the Catholic Church, because some priests committed the same crimes Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno did. We can't eliminate college football because some coaches or players come to believe they are above the law. We punish the offenders and we make corrections. We don't take away what we believe can be fixed.
If you think college football plays too big a role in our culture, that's fine, but then your beef is with the culture, not Penn State. One football program didn't create that problem and while it might make us feel good to see that Something Has Been Done, crushing that program won't address the larger issues we all want to see changed.
Once crushed, however, a program like this will never return to its previous heights. If that happens, we can never truly know whether anything was actually "fixed" or just stamped out so that some team could take its place. But if we let Penn State keep its football team, change the leadership (which has already done), give more backbone to presidents and trustees, and get them to hold their whole organization to a higher standard, maybe they can make their campus a better example for everyone. Maybe Penn State can learn to have an extremely lucrative football program that isn't also corrupted by its own success. That was the goal of Joe Paterno's "grand experiment." He failed. Does that mean no one else should get the chance to succeed?