Keeping Score

Viewpoint: Why Penn State’s Football Program Shouldn’t Suffer the ‘Death Penalty’

Outraged sports buffs across the U.S. are calling on the NCAA to exterminate Penn State football. Their emotions are sound, their argument is not

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Tim Schaffer / Reuters

Penn State fans watch a game against Nebraska in State College, Penn., on Nov. 12, 2011

Call the Penn State sex-abuse scandal whatever you will. It’s heinous, it’s traumatic — it’s still hard to expunge some images from your mind. It’s one of the worst scandals, in sports or beyond, you’ve ever seen. When a story like this unfolds, especially these days, human nature is to gather around social media and vent. We try to top one another for the most outraged reaction. It’s not hard to summon the rage.

That’s why, I suspect, we’ve seen calls on sports radio and screeds on the Web calling for Penn State’s football program to receive the “death penalty,” meaning that the NCAA would completely shut it down. The NCAA has handed down the death penalty to a football program just once, to Southern Methodist University (SMU) in the 1980s because its athletic-department staff members helped pass payments from a slush fund, set up by a booster, to players. (SMU missed the 1987 and 1988 seasons, and the football program has never been as successful following the punishment.)

(Read more about the Penn State scandal.)

Alleged sex abuse against children by former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, apparently covered up by fired Penn State coach Joe Paterno and top university administrators, is certainly more serious than payments to players. In fact, many people argue that paying big-time college athletes is only fair, since they deliver so much revenue to schools. But in the case of Penn State, the death-penalty proclamations are misguided, and unproductive.

Let’s be clear: the future of Penn State football should be a relatively minor concern. Fair justice for the accused perpetrators — whether it’s Sandusky, the two university officials accused of perjury or even Paterno, who will probably be subject to civil lawsuits for failing to alert authorities — is vital. Healing for the alleged victims should be paramount. If for no other reason, death-penalty cries should be toned down since they distract from these far more pressing issues.

(See if another situation like the Penn State scandal can be averted.)

Second, calling for the execution of Penn State football is impractical. The NCAA is a meek bureaucracy charged with enforcing rules designed to level the playing field of college athletics (yes, we know schools flout them with regularity). The organization has no real power to play judge and jury, separate from the criminal-justice system. But even if the NCAA could somehow strengthen its muscle, death to Penn State football still doesn’t seem like a completely fair, or productive, punishment. Rules against recruiting advantages and academic cheating may seem minor compared with what apparently unfolded at Penn State. They are. But these violations are committed to gain an on-field advantage in games and can sometimes make a sham of academics. Also, the players are usually complicit in these schemes. Is it fair that a player can’t take a few thousands bucks from a wealthy alum because of his outstanding play? No. The rules stink, but they’re still on the books.

At Penn State, it was a coach who allegedly committed the crimes. The adults in charge then seemed to cover them up. Right now there is no evidence that players kept quiet too. Now, if we learn that more than just the few people named in the grand-jury report were aware of Sandusky’s specific abuses — at this point, would that be any surprise? — the death-penalty discussion shifts. If this is an institutional cover-up with tentacles in the football locker room or on the campus, Penn State football has no right to survive.

(See if it is O.K. to trust coaches with our children.)

But as of right now, the NCAA unilaterally shuttering Penn State football, especially after Paterno has already been tossed aside — as the rest of his coaching staff surely will be in the coming months — would seem to be a pointless punishment. What good does this do the victims? One could argue that the elimination of Penn State football could prevent future cover-ups of crimes committed by Penn State players and coaches. If there’s no football profit center to protect, why is a cover-up worth it? But by that logic, you’d have to shut down big-time college sports everywhere because all these major brands are worth protecting. Many would love to see such drastic action. It will never happen.

Furthermore, Penn State’s football brand is already tarnished beyond belief. What future recruits are going to want to go to State College and deal with this fallout? The legal proceedings could stretch out for years.

In the wake of this scandal, if Penn State wants to take a deep breath and take a break from football, few will stop them. The school needs to determine its priorities, its values, what it truly stands for. The football team makes millions of dollars, but Penn State is also a huge state school with resources beyond the gridiron. It can survive without the sport. And if the scope of the scandal keeps getting worse, it might have no choice but to do so. Football might be too toxic for Penn State to bear.

See the seven key players in the Penn State abuse case.

Read about the firing of Joe Paterno.

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