What The Penn State Sanctions Got Right and Wrong


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Joe Paterno

The sanctions handed down to Penn State by the NCAA yesterday were unprecedented, as promised. I can’t say I disagree with some of the sanctions, but at the same time I can’t say I agree with all of them either.

The blow was not exactly the infamous “death penalty”, last dealt to Southern Methodist University in 1987 amidst a “slush fund” scandal involving the payment of players. However, the NCAA got its point across.

Many view the penalties handed down to Penn State as worse than the death penalty itself. As a friend and colleague of mine on the Penn State TV and radio stations put it, “The NCAA wasn’t trying to kill Penn State football, it was trying to make sure that Penn State loses every game 50-0.”

Regardless of the future scores, come Saturdays in the fall, there will be football at Penn State. You may not agree with me, but personally, I think it’s for the best. Not because I am a Penn State student, but because whether or not you like Penn State, it is hard to say these students don’t deserve to play and that local businesses in the State College area deserve to suffer.

Don’t believe that football season could harm the local economy that much? As of 2009, the annual operations of Penn State football accounted for $161.5 million in the state of Pennsylvania. One State College taxi driver overheard OnwardState.com’s Drew Balis talking with a friend about the possibility of a death penalty for Penn State and said flat out “I lose over half my income if that happens.”

Penn State will pay however; $60 million ($12 million a year for a total of five years) every cent of which is to be donated to child abuse prevention and recognition charities. As NCAA president Mark Emmert stated yesterday in his press conference, that is the equivalent of one Penn State football season’s revenue for the athletic department and the payment cannot come at the cost of smaller sports. This is one of the parts of the agreement that I like the most. This fine is a productive penalty and directly goes to helping the cause for which the punitive measures are being taken.

In addition, the NCAA mandates that the school adopt the suggestions formally outlined in the Freeh Report to improve the institution at Penn State, preventing such a crisis from occurring again. Penn State will also have to enter into an “athletic integrity agreement” with the NCAA and appoint an NCAA-selected integrity monitor. Finally, the school will undergo a five-year probationary period, effective immediately.

Everything up to this point is great in my book. People are being helped, the university is being further pushed to make it a better place, it all seems fitting. From here on out is where I question some of the NCAA’s rulings: First off, Penn State will undergo a four-year ban on postseason play, including play in bowl games and Big Ten Championship games. Furthermore, Penn State will be forced to reduce the amount of scholarships it can hand out, 20 fewer each year for a four-year period (players can transfer schools if they choose without penalty). Finally all Penn State wins from the 1998 season until 2011 have been vacated.

People tell me, “It’s fitting because the NCAA had to send a message.” Personally, I think a nine-month national media storm, the seemingly daily installments of the latest in the Jerry Sandusky Scandal on television, the removal of four school leaders (one of whom has been on staff since Truman was president of the United States) and of course, the legal action taken by the government seems to send that message. Not to mention the previously defined $60 million fine and mandated institutional changes/probationary period probably sent that message as well.

Many expected some sort of bowl ban; to them, it just seemed fitting. But why did it seem fitting? No current player or coach had anything to do with the events at Penn State that prompted all of this. It can’t have been about the money: Penn State donated all of the revenue from last year’s Ticket City Bowl to child abuse-related charities even before the NCAA mandated further donations yesterday morning. The only reason it seems “right” to many is because “the program had to be punished.”

I’m not oblivious to that point of view. I understand for many people something more than fines and institutional changes were warranted. For many, it would be very weird to see Penn State in the BCS Championship game next year (unlikely, but a possibility) and I understand that. However I stand by my point that it doesn’t punish the right people.

The scholarship reduction irks me the most. Twenty fewer scholarships a year means that 80 young men over the next four years won’t get the chance to earn a world-class college degree at Penn State. Forget about playing football, we’re talking about denial of a college education here. Say what you will about Penn State–I can’t stop you from making jokes (just don’t let me hear them)–but it is a damn fine school from an academic perspective and this scandal doesn’t change that.

Finally, the vacating of wins from 1998 until 2011. I get it, the NCAA wants to get its shots in at Joe. And you know what, this is as close to punishing a guilty party in the Freeh Reports as the NCAA came in this entire thing, but two things: 1. The man is dead. And 2. Joe Paterno may have been at the helm, but hundreds of Penn State students won those games, not Joe. It is a slap in the face to each and every one of them to vacate their wins in the record books. Yes, many of them say they don’t need the record books. A friend of mine is a long snapper on the football team and tweeted yesterday, “So I’ve lost every game I’ve ever played in… HA yeah right.”

So I have reached the conclusion of the punishments handed down to Penn State by the NCAA. It seems as if no guilty party in the Freeh Report was punished whatsoever. The incarcerated Sandusky is no further incarcerated than he was before, Joe Paterno can’t really be punished since he has passed away, Tim Curley and Gary Schultz still await criminal trials and none of these men, nor Graham Spanier are affiliated with the university anymore anyway. Aside from the $60 million fine to child abuse-related charities and the corrective components of the agreement (i.e., mandating the Freeh Report recommendations, integrity monitor, etc.), it seems to me as if these sanctions only serve to punish the current and prospective Penn State athletes.

Needless to say, head coach Bill O’Brien has his work cut out for him.

Alex Eliasof will be a junior at Penn State in the fall. He is majoring in journalism.

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  1. I wanted to congratulate Alex on his thoughtful, even-handed, and pragmatic piece. Our son is on the verge of entering Penn State as a freshman, and we’re all processing the issues ourselves, of course. We’ve no doubt that this scandal will make Penn State even stronger than ever, both culturally and academically. And, although we’re not especially focused on football, there are myriad questions surrounding both the targeting and effectiveness of the NCAA sanctions AND their unintended consequences. Great work, Alex, in assembling such a well-considered take on the situation.

  2. Very thoughtful article, Alex. It’s good to see something as well-reasoned as this in the blogosphere. The bowl sanctions don’t help the victims. I think they should donate a significant portion of their bowl proceeds to charities that support victims of abuse. That, in my opinion, would be a constructive way of implementing positive change.

    I also agree completely with you about the vacated wins. The student-athletes won those games on the field. If the NCAA wants to remove Paterno’s name from those victories, so be it (note: I’m not saying one way or the other that I agree with even that). However, let the Penn State teams have the wins they earned. PSU’s history has been defined as a team, as a university, and as a community. Don’t punish the masses for the sins of a few. The victims of abuse don’t benefit from any of that. Those responsible for the crimes are facing prison time.

  3. Alex you voiced perfectly everything I have been thinking. Your words will bring comfort to many who are trying to make sense of the sanctions and who they are really punishing. It just seems like they are hurting so many innocent people and how can that benefit anyone? Let them play bowl games and donate the proceeds toward Child Abuse Charities. I find it so ironic that the media is all over Penn State now and during the riots but where were they during THON when all those students came together to raise money for Children’s Cancer research? That is the REAL Penn State.


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