Dejan Kovacevic, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, put out an article last week calling for Penn State to receive the so-called “Death Penalty” for the institution’s role in enabling Jerry Sandusky’s crimes against children. It’s quite a good article, full of principle and moral outrage at the culture of putting football above all else that allowed this scandal to occur and may allow Penn State to escape with a relatively light punishment. But I think there’s a stronger argument out there for shutting down Penn State’s football program, one that Kovacevic only alluded to.
(Note: my contrarian side wants to point out that principled positions of moral outrage are extremely easy to take when the target is a child rapist; that it should take more than a principled expression of moral outrage for an article to be considered laudable; and that this article and its argument may very well fall into that category of principled expressions of moral outrage that exist only to one-up other principled expressions of moral outrage,which is not a very laudable endeavor at all. Needless to say, I told my contrarian side to shut the fuck up.)
I first heard this argument a few weeks ago while checking out the twitter account of a high school kicking prospect who had recently been offered a scholarship by the University of Michigan, which I lustily root for. (Side note: some people might note a conflict of interest in a Michigan fan arguing for the death penalty for Penn State, a fellow perennial Big Ten football power with whom Michigan regularly competes for top recruits. To those people I say, once again, “shut the fuck up.”) The kicker, whose name and twitter handle have been lost to the dark recesses of my memory, said something to the effect of, “SMU got the death penalty for paying players; if Penn State doesn’t get the death penalty for covering up rape, NCAA loses all credibility.” He is exactly right.
Let’s review. Southern Methodist University was once one of the most improbably successful football schools in the entire country. Unlike most powerhouse football programs, which are typically found at large flagship public universities featuring massive student bodies and alumni bases, SMU was a small, private university with enrollment in the low four figures. Nonetheless, they were perennial contenders in the Southwestern Conference (which preceded today’s Big 12) and won the national championship in 1982. In 1985, a former offensive lineman told the NCAA that he and his family received cash payments in exchange for decommitting from the University of Pittsburgh and enrolling at SMU, causing the NCAA to ban the Mustangs from bowl games in 1985 and 1986 and a ban from all live television in 1986. In November of 1986, it was revealed that SMU boosters, with the knowledge of SMU football staff and administrators, had been running a slush fund to pay players and recruits since the mid-1970s; in 1985 and ’86, a 13 players were paid a total of $61,000. As a result, the NCAA handed down the only “death penalty” in the organization’s history, cancelling SMU’s 1987 season along with most of the 1988 season. (SMU would eventually voluntarily forgo all of the 1988 season, claiming they could not field a viable team). To this day, SMU’s death penalty stands as the harshest punishment the NCAA has ever given. The SMU football team was utterly decimated and never regained its previous glory; it would be 20 years before they played in another bowl game.
SMU’s violations of the NCAA’s amateurism policies were a breathtaking study in arrogance and contempt for the rules. But those violations utterly pale in comparison to the magnitude of the corruption and moral degradation that occurred at Penn State. Consider some of what we know from the Freeh report, which was released yesterday.
-We know that Jerry Sandusky, a Penn State football coach, used Penn State football and other university facilities to molest and rape prepubescent boys over a period of at least 15 years.
-We know that Sandusky’s unthinkable behavior was known to the head coach, the athletic director, and the university’s President and senior Vice-President, none of whom took any step to bring Sandusky to justice.
-We know that other, lower-level employees of the university knew about the abuse that was taking place but dared not come forward. These employees include a janitor who witnessed Sandusky performing oral sex on a ten year old boy but could not come forward for fear of losing his job.
-We know that another assistant coach walked in on Sandusky raping a young boy in the shower room and that he, the head coach, the athletic director, and the Vice-President with oversight over the University Police then actively conspired to cover up that rape.
To summarize: the SMU case involved boosters (i.e., people not affiliated with the university in any official capacity) running a scheme to pay players to enroll and play football at SMU. At Penn State, we have university officials at the highest level conspiring to conceal sexual abuse of children perpetrated by one of their staff - and using their capacities and powers as university officials as an essential element of that conspiracy. Penn State’s crimes dwarf SMU’s by any measure. They are beyond comparison morally. They reflect exponentially greater disdain for rules, the law, and common decency. And most relevantly, they are the result of corruption stemming from the institution itself, not mere hangers-on.
In light of this, I cannot conceive of any just universe in which SMU’s crimes are punished more severely than Penn State’s. If it is to have any credibility as an arbiter of justice in the world of college athletics, the NCAA must give Penn State the death penalty.
But, of course, ours is most assuredly not a just universe and I no more expect the NCAA to ban Penn State from football than I expect the Drug Enforcement Agency to deschedule marijuana. The reason, of course, is money. College football has been a big business for quite some time, but it is much bigger today than in the mid-Eighties, and Penn State is a much bigger fish to fry than SMU. Penn State is a giant among football schools, a perennial powerhouse with a national following that generates millions of dollars. College football recruiting analyst Mike Farrell summed it up perfectly in a tweet this morning:
And that’s exactly the problem. In these two cases – the small school whose football program was destroyed because their players got paid; the powerhouse program whose status insulates them from appropriate punishment for a far worse crime – the true nature of the NCAA is laid bare. This organization is not and has never been about justice, or integrity, or even amateurism. It is a cartel that functions only to create profits for its member institutions and artificially suppress compensation for athletes.
Within that paradigm, of course SMU’s crimes deserve harsher punishment than Penn State’s. The Sandusky sex abuse scandal, after all, will be mostly forgotten within a few years; like the Catholic church’s sex abuse scandal, people will remember that there was a horrible guy who did horrible things, but they won’t remember the details or scope of the rotten conspiracy throughout the highest levels of the university to hush the whole thing up. And if they do remember those details, they certainly won’t punish the university for it. Penn State’s fans will still buy tickets to see games at Beaver Stadium, they’ll still tune in to watch the Nittany Lions play on ESPN, they’ll still lay wreaths at the feet of Joe Paterno’s statue, and they’ll still buy jerseys featuring the numbers (but not the names, no, never the names) of Penn State’s best players; the same way Catholics still attend Mass, still revere the Pope as God’s messenger on Earth, and still volunteer their children to be altar boys. In other words, all will be fine, the golden goose will still lay eggs. Never mind the lives Sandusky destroyed, never mind the sickening institutional corruption that prefers the ongoing, unfettered, unpunished rape of children to bad press for the football team, never mind basic concepts of morality, human decency, and justice, never mind any of that. The money’s going to be fine.
But a school’s boosters paying high school recruits and college athletes? That can’t be tolerated. That must be punished. That must be stopped. After all, if we let some players get away with being paid, maybe they’ll realize that their services actually have pecuniary value beyond their scholarships. Maybe they’ll tell the other athletes who aren’t being paid. Maybe they’ll all start to demand actual wages, and then maybe this whole multi-billion dollar system – built and predicated on exploiting the incredible bargaining position disadvantage and consequent free labor of 18-22 year olds – will come crumbling down. Nope, can’t have that.