Former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky has racked up 422 years of prison due to his being convicted on 45 of 48 counts of sexual abuse on minors over several years. Needless to say justice has been done. Beyond the psychological impact on the victims, the ramifications of Sandusky’s disgusting actions have been significant on Penn State as well. Predictably, the university has had to deal with a public relations scandal of uncommon magnitude. Joe Paterno, the long-standing head coach of the Nittany Lions, was fired and died a few months later (amid worrying protests from Penn State students and fans suggesting the decision to fire him was a mistake). The university president Graham Spanier was replaced as well, and the hiring of former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien as head football coach along with his new staff took care of cleaning up whatever was left of the “tainted” Paterno regime.
While we can only hope the Sandusky conviction allows the former DC’s victims and their families to carry on with their lives, the Penn State football program looks to heal as well. However, rumour has it that it might get tougher, even borderline impossible, for Penn State to accomplish this. Indeed, it was discussed on ESPN Radio that Penn State might be subjected to a sanction most people familiar with the NCAA know as the “Death Penalty.”
The NCAA’s “Repeat Violator” policy, a.k.a. The Death Penalty, has only been implemented once in college football. In the late 70s-mid 80s, Southern Methodist University (SMU) had one of college football’s most dominant and controversial programs when, in 1986, they were slapped with this sentence for numerous and repeated violations of NCAA recruiting regulations. Members of the SMU administration as well as SMU boosters were known to have set up a slush fund which allowed them to pay recruits to come and play at SMU. The scam had some incredibly important people involved, including Bill Clements, the former governor of Texas who was running for office again. At the time, the Mustangs had been placed on probation a staggering seven times since 1974 and were actually on probation as a result of such violations. (For more on the SMU story, there is much good material on the internet, and I strongly recommend the excellent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “The Pony Excess.”)
As a result, SMU’s 1987 season was cancelled (they chose not to play in 1988 as well, citing the likely inability to be competitive). They lost 55 scholarships over four years, and could only hire five full-time assistants instead of the standard nine. They could not recruit off campus or pay for recruits’ campus visits for a full year.
The word “devastating” doesn’t seem to adequately describe the repercussions of the Death Penalty on the SMU football program. The team basically lost the ability to be competitive for 20 years. From the time it resumed football after the death penalty until the end of the 2007 campaign, the Mustangs had only one winning season. Five years later, coach June Jones still hasn’t completed the team’s turnaround, though things are looking up.
This is, in all likelihood, what awaits Penn State should the NCAA decide to impose the Death Penalty on Nittany Lions football. Thus, the question shifts to whether the NCAA should make this decision. In my humble opinion, the answer is no.
The real name of the Death Penalty, the “Repeat Violator” policy, is revealing. This is a sanction reserved for programs who repeatedly violate NCAA rules. Those who support the suggestion that Penn State should get the Death Penalty point out, quite rightly, that Sandusky is a repeat violator of the worst kind. However, Penn State, as far as we know, has broken no NCAA rules. The NCAA does not legislate on sexual abuse for the simple reason that these are matters of American federal law. Therefore, accusations and sanctions regarding Sandusky’s (and others’) crimes are matters which should be reserved for the courts and directed at the people responsible for all this. This is not the NCAA’s business. And so far, things have been done the right way. The university has done what it needed to by terminating the employment of the people who were guilty of knowing what Sandusky did and preventing light from being shed on his transgressions. The courts could have decided to go after Paterno before he died, just as they could go after anyone they deem made themselves complicit through complacency. Whether they will remains to be determined.
Moreover, it strikes me as blindingly obvious that the NCAA also needs to look at who it would be punishing by slapping the Death Penalty on Penn State. What exactly would the NCAA accomplish by forcing current PSU student athletes, who never played for Sandusky, let alone took part in allowing him to keep sexually molesting children, to transfer in order to avoid compromising their athletic careers? These young men did not sign up for any of this, and as such, should not have to bear any responsibility for the criminal acts of a man who has not been involved with the PSU program since 1999.
Those who want the Death Penalty for Penn State will argue that this is what was done at SMU, as the program was shut down even though many of its players had been recruited without the offer of monetary bribes. True, but as anyone familiar with the SMU story will recall, the boosters and administrators who were running the slush fund decided to keep paying the players who had been offered money to come to SMU, many of whom were still on the team. The plan was to keep paying the players who were promised money to discourage them from blowing the whistle, avoid paying the new recruits in order to clean up progressively. Which would have been fine except it meant another 2-3 years of violations, during which they were caught again and given the Death Penalty. Besides, in the SMU case, the players who took the money were as guilty as the coaches and the boosters offering it. This is different from the Penn State scenario, where the current players had nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse on children.
The facile argument according to which it would be wrong for the NCAA to do nothing doesn’t work either. A decision to administer a slap-on-the-wrist probation would, in my opinion, serve as little more than a petty symbolic gesture and would fulfill no real purpose. And to impose a sentence as grave as the Death Penalty, or even a strong yet lesser sentence, on a program which has now cut ties with the guilty ones strikes me as patently ridiculous. It would mean the NCAA has acted outside its jurisdiction to punish the wrong people. It could have done something had the university decided to do nothing and to act as though the problem was Sandusky alone. But Penn State acted. It got rid of all the people who played a part in allowing Sandusky to continue molesting children by keeping a lid on the situation (Paterno, Spanier, etc.). Meanwhile, the courts pursued and convicted Sandusky and can still go after others if enough proof of guilt can be gathered. Again, justice has been served.
In the documentary “The Pony Excess,” CBS college football commentator Verne Lundquist concludes by saying “I believe the NCAA realized what it had done to the SMU athletic program and will never administer the Death Penalty again.” With the current state of affairs in the NCAA, with every day seemingly bringing new allegations of recruiting violations, I wouldn’t be so sure. But they certainly shouldn’t impose it on Penn State football for the actions of Jerry Sandusky. In this case, the crimes are doubtlessly grave, but they are not the NCAA’s to punish.