The NCAA sanction Penn State this week for its failures to take action on reports of Jerry Sandusky‘s abuse of children while a coach and later while using its facilities. The news and talk shows were full of discussion about whether or not the “death penalty” would be applied and, after the sanctions were announced, whether they were “tough enough.” I think they miss the point.
What was really wrong at Penn State?
The Freeh report focused on two problems at Penn State. The first was the presence of a sexual predator, Jerry Sandusky. The university did not have any way to protect itself against the problem of hiring Sandusky, assuming that he did not have any prior arrests or complaints of harrassment. It is the second problem that brought on the sanctions: how did the university respond to the first complaint… and the second.
The Freeh report tagged the “culture of football” – a set of beliefs and values in the institution that put a priority on maintaining the image and strength of the athletic program. The NCAA actions could be considered simply as punishment – or as an intervention that might actually change the culture. Recent news reports hint that Penn State’s president accepted this package of penalties to avoid four years of the “death penalty.” But the package actually imposed might be more effective anyway.
The “death penalty” over a four year period might have achieved its goal – the death of Penn State as a contender in Division I football for a long time to come. But death doesn’t change a culture – it just ends it.
The sanctions imposed lock Penn State out of post-season play for four years. That, along with the firing and subsequent death of Joe Paterno, will have an effect on the recruitment and retention of the highest caliber players. They will still play other Big 10 teams, but without any chance of appearing in the Rose Bowl or any other bowl.
What effect will this have on Big 10 football? As an alumna of another Big 10 university, I don’t think Penn State’s football culture was unique: Jerry Sandusky might well have avoided detection or prosecution at other Division I universities. The NCAA sanctions mean that each team will encounter and think about the Penn State situation over the next four years – where the so-called death penalty would simply remove them from vision.
These sanctions have at least the potential to bring about more change in the hegemony of football culture across the country – not just at Penn State – than the more focused death penalty could ever have achieved.
- Penn State trustees say NCAA sanctions better than football ban (nypost.com)
- PSU prez: School faced 4-year death penalty (espn.go.com)
- Penn State Penalties: Breaking Down the NCAA Sanctions (bleacherreport.com)
- Recruitment of Penn State players touches a nerve (thegazette.com)
- The Freeh Group Acknowledges Some Mistakes In Its Report On Penn State [Penn State Scandal] (deadspin.com)
- President: Penn State accepted sanctions to avoid death penalty (collegefootballtalk.nbcsports.com)