How to fix Penn State without killing football

Will there be football at Penn State this fall? (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)

The jackhammers did their work quickly, by all accounts. The cement that moored the Joe Paterno statue to its foundation broke easily. It had to come down, and on a summer Sunday morning it did come down, and there really should not have been a debate; false idols, etc.

If only the rest were that easy.

The NCAA comes on Monday. An organization that has most often stood for all that was good and holy and profitable in college athletics -- and not necessarily in that order -- is set to pronounce sentence on the Penn State football program.

The assistant coach who sexually assaulted the children is in jail. The head coach who failed to stop it is dead. The school administrators who enabled the predator have been either fired or indicted. It is very easy to make the intellectual argument that this is not an NCAA matter. But it is impossible for the multibillion-dollar cartel to remain silent if the multibillion-dollar cartel is not to be harmed. So, the NCAA will speak at 9 am.

To bludgeon the Penn State football program with sanctions would be to make a public relations point while missing the larger point. I originally wrote a line about how it would "create a whole new set of victims who had nothing to do with the enabling of the predator, Jerry Sandusky." Upon reflection, the use of the word "victims" in this context is insensitive.

The point remains the same, though. The wrong people would be getting punished. Yes, there is always collateral damage when the NCAA gets involved, but we are talking about decisions made by Paterno and the rest that took place more than a decade ago now. If the NCAA cripples Penn State football, the damage will be entirely collateral.

What needs to come is a mix of punishment and symbolism. What needs to happen are sanctions that attempt to make amends and also to insure that nothing like this could ever happen again.

This is what Penn State should have done to preempt the NCAA:

1) Say that it would not participate in bowl games in the next three seasons.

In the weeks after Paterno was fired last November, following the release of the Sandusky grand jury presentment, the most egregious error made by Penn State administrators was the decision for the 2011 team to participate in the TicketCity Bowl. It reeked of insensitivity, and not understanding the depth of their problems. Finishing out the regular season was one thing; human beings seek out community as part of their grieving process and, like it or not, Beaver Stadium is that school’s community. Besides, their opponents would have been harmed, financially and otherwise, if they had called off the rest of their season. But the proper move after that was for Penn State to withdraw its name from bowl consideration, and the proper move now is to withdraw its name for the next three seasons.

This is a real punishment for the program, financially and competitively. It also would limit that collateral damage as much as reasonably possible. It would harm the program without crippling it. It would make a point without unduly punishing people who had nothing to do with the wrongdoing.

2) Say that it would form a new children’s charity.

It would be funded out of the athletic department, funded in the millions of dollars per year -- perhaps by a surcharge on football tickets. It would include a 10-hour per year commitment of service that would be written into the scholarship agreement of every varsity athlete at Penn State, and 20 hours for every coach. It would be a program designed to help the very underprivileged children who were Sandusky’s victims.

This would be a real-world attempt at making amends to the community at large. It would be the good that came out of the tragedy and a constant reminder to everyone associated with Penn State athletics.

3) Say it would hire a woman as its next athletic director.

This might be controversial, and sexist, but here goes: if there had been a woman in authority in the Penn State athletic department’s chain of command, I don’t believe the enabling of Sandusky would have gone on for as long as it did. Maybe this is simplistic, and maybe it is naive, but the history of the Sandusky case suggests that it was women, not men, who ultimately spoke up. And decades after Title IX, there are likely dozens of women who are mature in their careers in athletic administration and capable of running a program the size of Penn State’s.

It is time. If you are charged with changing the culture -- which Penn State most certainly is -- both the symbolism and the reality here would be significant. Oh, and one more thing: the football coach would be prohibited from being on the search committee.

4) Finally, say that it would limit the term of its football coaches to 10 years.

I have put this one last, but it might be the most important. Nothing against new Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, but this would be the new rule: you get a 5-year contract and then, if they still like you, you get another 5-year contract. But that’s it.

The purpose of this should be obvious to everyone -- and to Penn State people most of all. Their biggest problem was not big-time athletics, or all of the money, or the fear of bad publicity, or the school’s splendid geographical isolation, or the evil football. Those things all exist, to varying degrees, in dozens of places around the country that have never seen this kind of an abrogation of responsibility, and of human decency.

No, this was different. The Penn State problem was an all-powerful football coach who had been in place for a half-century, a man who could strong-arm the university’s student disciplinary system, and who could ignore trustees and administrators who tried to get him to retire, and who had built such a fortress that a janitor who witnessed Sandusky assaulting a child in a locker room shower was afraid to report what he saw to authorities because it could cost him his job.

That is why Penn State needs to term-limit its football coaches -- so that such a cult of personality could never again be created. That statue is why.

Because taking it down really was the easy part. Making sure nobody at Penn State ever again builds a statue of a football coach is the much more difficult task.

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