"An instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, especially as manifested by a body of admirers." That definition of cult applies to sects ranging from the Branch Davidians to Jonestown and now, it appears, Penn State college football. The inner sanctum of the university's football program seems to have become a cult followed by legions of participants, devotees, and protectors who operated with impunity under the almighty influence of a revered icon, Joe Paterno.

Unfortunately, this is not just a metaphor about the fanaticism of college football; this was allegedly a group operating outside the bounds of the college administration, if not in some cases the law, enabling the frequent molestation of children by a member of the inner sanctum, sometimes in Penn State's facilities.

Moreover, that sanctum extended not only to the university's athletic director and a campus police administrator, but in some manner to the now-fired president of the institution. Paterno was the tail wagging the football program, and the football program was clearly wagging the university. This is why no one protested the removal of the president the way rioters came out in force for Paterno last week: The university president was expendable in the scheme of the football program.

So what else can be done? To get the full attention of Penn State and every other out-of-control college football program in America, the NCAA should take away Penn State football - if only for a while.

College football programs have been an academic cancer for years. In 1989, sports journalist Rick Telander's The Hundred Yard Lie exposed their depravity, including that of players who wreaked havoc on other students, often of a violent or sexual nature. In many places, not just Penn State, football is a license for mayhem. And if ever an athletic program were out of control, Penn State football is it.

There are several NCAA rules on institutional control or lack thereof. Consider: "A single deviation by a member of the athletics staff or a representative of the institution's athletics interests will not be considered a lack of institutional control. However, if there are a number of violations, even if they all are minor, indicating that the compliance system is not operating effectively, the person(s) responsible cannot ignore the situation, but must take steps to correct the compliance system."

The Penn State case is so much more egregious than this that it almost defies comprehension. The rules say even minor violations can constitute a lack of institutional control.

In 1985, a University of Minnesota offensive coordinator loaned quarterback Rickey Foggie $356 so he could buy a plane ticket to attend his grandmother's funeral. Even though the loan was paid back, the coach had to answer to the NCAA. In 1996, Northwestern running back Darnell Autry had to sue the NCAA to be allowed to appear in a bit part in a movie - even though his college major was theater! And the NCAA has suspended entire programs, imposing its sports "death penalty" at Southern Methodist University (football), Morehouse College (soccer), MacMurray College (tennis), and others, all for recruiting and eligibility violations that pale compared to the alleged child rape cover-up at Penn State.

What does the alleged sexual abuse have to do with football? Everything, including the reported roles of the athletic director, head coach, assistant coaches, athletic facilities and staff, and misguided student rioters, for starters.

The NCAA has a mandate to step in. Its own website says its "core purpose is to govern competition in a fair, safe, equitable, and sportsmanlike manner, and to integrate intercollegiate athletics into higher education so that the educational experience of the student-athlete is paramount."

If contaminating an entire program and university with a pervasive cover-up that reached the highest levels over as many as 16 years is not contrary to the notion that the "educational experience ... is paramount," then what is? If this institution was not out of control, what university ever would be? And if the NCAA does not have the fortitude to step into this scandal, then what good is the NCAA?

Eldon L. Ham is a Chicago-based sports attorney, an adjunct professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, and the author of "Broadcasting Baseball." He can be reached via www.eldonham.com.