Bob Ford: Punishment for Penn State misguided and too harsh

NCAA president Mark Emmert called Penn State's football culture on campus "perverse and unconscionable." (Ed Hille/Staff Photographer)

The NCAA, which always seems to set the standard for doing the impossible, has managed it again.

It is now possible to be fully aware of and properly horrified by what happened within the Penn State football program with the complicity and aid of the school's highest officials, and still believe the sanctions handed down by the NCAA on Monday are both misguided and way too harsh.

That seemed like a tough one for even the NCAA to accomplish, but president Mark Emmert and his self-satisfied, self-serving organization made it happen.

Nothing can ever really repair the lives of those who were abused by Jerry Sandusky. Not money, not time. Nothing can change the evidence that Graham B. Spanier, Tim Curley, Gary Schultz, and Joe Paterno knew about the situation at least as early as 1998 and betrayed the trust that came with their positions. Spanier seems likely to face criminal indictment for his actions and inaction. Curley and Schultz are already facing charges. Paterno, according to the findings of the Freeh report, lied to a grand jury and would be subject to prosecution as well if he were alive.

It is logical that others within the program knew about Sandusky, whether it was the janitors in the Lasch Football Building, or coach Mike McQueary, or any number connected with the operation who observed the mile-thick cone of silence in order to protect the all-important football team or to avoid the consequences of angering the prevailing powers.

Emmert called the campuswide culture that grew up around Paterno's program "perverse and unconscionable," one that lacked "basic human decency," and there is no way to argue with him on that count.


Was the NCAA fair in its punishment of Penn State?

This isn't looking the other way when a star player drives around campus in a new car. This isn't exchanging memorabilia for tattoos, or giving boosters and agents too much access to the players. This isn't about paying players or providing a dating service when recruits visit the campus.

This is about letting a predator roam freely to rape children because it might be bad for business to do otherwise. There is no precedent and there is no limit to the shame the program and university administrators have brought upon Penn State.

And that's what Emmert and his NCAA buddies were counting on when they came up with the sanctions meant to be both "punitive and corrective." The NCAA is often criticized as a toothless scold, particularly when it comes to football, which is run by the Bowl Championship Series conferences and not the NCAA.

So this was going to be a free swing for the NCAA crowd - one they couldn't wait to take. Because to argue with the NCAA on this one would mean not caring enough about the abuse of children. There is no higher ground from which to survey your subjects, and they knew it.

Expunging the victories from Paterno's record is fine. He shouldn't be remembered now as the greatest anything. Handing down enormous fines and penalties, and making sure those go to the proper charities, is the right thing to do. Placing an "integrity monitor" within the athletic department, forcing the adoption of the reforms outlined by Freeh, overhauling the compliance office, and doing everything except have Aunt Bea sit in study hall with the players, that's all fine.

Killing the football team's competitive chances for the next decade? That's not fine.

We can argue how long it will be before Penn State can compete effectively in the Big Ten again, but we can agree it's going to be a long while. The four-year ban on bowl appearances and the deep cut into scholarships is going to be devastating. Significant, but lesser penalties in those areas would have made the same point.

It would be unsurprising if 25 percent of the current team transferred out, and it wouldn't be the 25 percent you'd want to lose, either. It would be shocking if a top recruit chose Penn State for the next four years, knowing he couldn't appear in a postseason game and that, even after the ban runs its course, the team that emerges will still be stripped bare.

This is what you get when the "athletic culture [is allowed] to take precedence over the academic culture," Emmert said.

Well, welcome to your world, Dr. Emmert. If the NCAA truly believed in that stance, then it would move to change the very structure of collegiate football in this country and not merely decimate one program just because it can. If the massive football revenue and the worship and influence it brings could get so badly out of whack at Penn State, then it can happen anywhere. Not every school is going to be confronted with the presence of a rogue psychopath, but every school is susceptible to sliding down an ethical slope to protect the cash cow.

To cluck his tongue at Penn State about letting a program get too powerful while college football negotiates fabulous television-rights packages and creates a playoff system to put more money in its coffers is ridiculously hypocritical.

Here's what you do. Put a football revenue cap on every school. Make it a sliding scale depending on the size of the school if you want, but limit how much a school can make from football. Any revenue that exceeds that amount has to go to one of several charitable foundations set up and administered by the NCAA. The organization could do more for this country in one year than most corporations do in a lifetime.

That's not going to happen, of course. The school presidents who preside over the NCAA would much rather make an example of some other school and then go have lunch. Real change isn't what this was about.

It was about putting Penn State football in a car and driving it over the cliff. Penn State was the one that handed over the keys, and deserved almost all of what it got. There's no disputing that. And it wasn't that the punishment exceeded the crime, because there is nothing that exceeds this particular crime.

The money, the oversight, and the reforms made sense. Destroying the football team didn't.


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