I like to check out the on-line polls newspapers run, and did so a couple weeks ago at the Chicago Tribune sports-page site. The question concerned what decision the NCAA should reach in the Penn State case. The alternatives were nothing (it’s not a sports matter), the “death penalty” (no football for a year or two), and lesser sanctions. More than 70% of the previous voters had checked the “death penalty” box. I joined the less than 10% that opted for nothing.
I did so not because I thought the offenses involved—centering on the now-well-known predations of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky-- weren’t deserving of punishment. Quite the contrary, they were so heinous they transcended the confines of sport in which the NCAA functions. What Sandusky and the cover-up perpetrators did was a matter for the courts and the Pennsylvania legislature to deal with, and the process already had begun with Sandusky’s criminal conviction. Even the so-called death penalty would have trivialized the matter.
The penalties that were handed down this week only underscored that conclusion. Measuring Sandusky’s victims’ travail in bowl-game bans, scholarship reductions and victory forfeitures (ha!) put them in the category of the recruiting violations and grades cheating that the organization usually handles. The $60 million fine, which will go to child-protection agencies, was a nice touch, but Penn State should have thought of that itself.
The whole exercise illustrated the self-importance of the cartel that manages big-time college sports, and its essential nature. Lost in just about any discussion of the NCAA’s role is the fact that it is both the promoter and policeman of the activities it governs, and when there’s a conflict between the two functions the promoter always wins. That’s also the case with our professional sports leagues, by the way.
The idea that the death penalty might be invoked was naïve in the extreme. Any such action would have been bad for business, not only for Penn State but also for the 12 schools its football team plays annually, creating intolerable holes in their schedules and athletics-department budgets, and the NCAA is all about business. To use a line that emerged from another, larger lapse of governance, Penn State was too big to fail. Any of the 100 or so other college-sports programs that fit the “big-time” label also fit that category.
The usual image used by college-sports’ critics is that of the tail wagging the dog. Trouble is, these days it can be hard to tell which is which. The gag line that a university should strive to be a credit to its football team is funny because it’s so often true. At Penn State the university didn’t measure up.
The term the NCAA usually uses to justify the imposition of its harshest penalties is a lack of “institutional control” at the university in question, meaning that a school’s higher-ups didn’t properly oversee the athletics-department types. That couldn’t be claimed at Penn State, where according to the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh the university president, a vice president, the athletics director and the football head coach—the venerable Joe Paterno—were in cahoots in covering up Sandusky’s crimes. There was institutional control aplenty in Happy Valley, all aimed at protecting the football program at the expense of the boys Sandusky raped over the 13-year span of the conspiracy. Making it all the more appalling was the fact that it concerned an entertainment enterprise that falls outside any rational definition of a university’s mission.
Many Penn Staters don’t see it that way, of course. Neither do the millions of deluded others who equate a university’s standing with that of its sports teams. The Pennsylvania legislature, which really runs the school, should have shelved football indefinitely, out of atonement and to make the point that the sun would come up without it. It hasn’t because the voters wouldn’t stand for it. Go Lions!
The NCAA must shoulder blame for helping create the monster that college sports have become. So should the nation’s sporting press for elevating Paterno to sainthood before the stuff hit the fan. We news people like to say we revere the truth, but we love an easy story line more, and buying Joe’s self-proclaimed “Success With Honor” mantra was as natural as taking a second helping at the press-box game-day buffet.
I had no idea what Joe, et al, would hide later on, but I never bought his sanctity act. In 1984, when I was just starting my Wall Street Journal column, I took note of his repeated claim of 90% graduation rates for his footballers with a piece debunking it, pointing out that it didn’t include players who’d flunked out, dropped out, were flushed or turned pro before their senior years. As best as I could determine, the team’s real rate was a quite-respectable 60% or so, but Joe felt compelled to gild the lily anyway. Anyone who’d lie about small things probably also wouldn’t be straight about bigger ones, I figured.
The truth about Joe—and about every other successful big-time college coach—wasn’t that he was bad or good but that he was a hard man who made it in a hard business, one in which the only results that count are on the scoreboard. The motto “Whatever It Takes” hangs on many locker-room walls, and applies to coaches as well as to players. We should remember that before casting our heroes in bronze.