Keeping Score

‘Death Penalty’ Would Be an Act of Mercy for Penn State Football

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Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)

Joe Paterno, former head football coach at Penn State, walks onto the field before a game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Sept. 11, 2010, in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

In a PBS interview broadcast Monday night, NCAA president Mark Emmert refused to take “anything off the table” regarding its possible punishment of Penn State University in the wake of the damning Freeh Report. The results of former FBI director Louis Freeh’s investigation, released last week, concluded that top Penn State officials — including former president Graham Spanier and former head football coach Joe Paterno — “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Jerry Sandusky’s child abuse from the authorities” in order to “avoid the consequences of bad publicity.”

So the so-called death penalty for Penn State football is possible. And though that punishment seems particularly severe — and totally unwarranted, according to Penn State supporters — it’s actually an act of mercy. Plus, the consequences could be very productive, both on and off the field.

The death penalty sounds much worse than it is. It’s actually a temporary shutdown of a college football program. In the 1980s, Southern Methodist University’s football team got a one-year sentence and took another year off to regroup because players were being paid from a slush fund. (You can certainly argue that SMU should be lauded, not punished, for allowing revenue-producing players to get a piece of the college-football-revenue pie.) If Penn State sat out, say, this upcoming year, the players could retain their eligibility for next season. So a current senior, for example, would be able to play in 2013. An incoming freshman could still play four years of football at Penn State.

(MORE: ‘Every Day Was a Mistake’: How Should Penn State Deal with Joe Paterno)

The NCAA could give players the option to transfer without having to sit out a year. Some might take this option, but with practices fast approaching this summer, they might not have time to flee Penn State.

So what would be the fallout from a one-year ban? Yes, the university and its athletic department would take a financial hit. But the players, a year older and stronger, might return next season in better shape. And they’d have more time to soak up the college experience, away from the football facilities. Penn State might win more games than they otherwise would have, and the players, hopefully, would be more mature intellectually.

During a year of healing, the university could actually prove that it doesn’t center on football. That it can survive, and even thrive, on its own.

Penn State football, and the entire university, is facing a toxic environment this season. In the wake of the Sandusky verdict and an investigation that pinned the failure to report child sex abuse to authorities, in part, on the “culture of reverence for football,” questions will be following the football team all season: What do you think of how your late coach acted? Will recruits bother coming to State College and dealing with the aftermath? Why are you guys playing?

Why go through with this, when you can temporarily escape the toxic atmosphere and return to a healthier place?

If the NCAA takes the typical route and limits scholarships and postseason play for Penn State, the current football players — innocent in the entire Sandusky scandal — may suffer more than under a death penalty. If you gut the team while still putting one on the field, the on-field experience is entirely compromised. With a sabbatical, the entire operation should be refreshed.

For Penn State football, there are many fates worse than death.

MORE: Penn State Cover-Up: Groupthink in Action