In a lot of places, the Freeh Report released Thursday has ignited an arms race for the dramatic: How badly should the NCAA punish Penn State for the Sandusky scandal? The internet is littered with stories advocating “the death penalty” for Penn State football.
But here’s how many Penn State football games the NCAA should cancel: Zero. The NCCA needs to ask itself only 3 questions: 1) What are we preventing? 2) Who are we punishing? and 3) Who are we helping? When the answers to those questions are nothing, everyone, and no one, respectively, then the NCAA shouldn’t cancel a single game.
What are we preventing?
Everyone agrees this should never happen again. But does ending the Penn State football program get us closer to that?
Over the course of 100-plus years of college football across hundreds of schools, nothing like this has ever happened before. So before we decide that everything associated with Penn State and college football generally is broken, consider: Is child abuse and the failure to report it really a systemic problem that’s pervasive in college football programs? This isn’t the Catholic Church with its thousands of incidents across the globe and its celibacy vow that, let’s just say, attracts a certain type of person. This is one sick monster who infected an otherwise pretty good institution led by people who did the wrong thing. If there are institutional problems, then do the hard thing that requires thoughtfulness and effort: change the culture of the institution. Don’t take the easy road and destroy it.
If missing football games is needed as a deterrent to other schools, consider what the president of another university would have to think when presented with reports that someone was molesting children on campus.
President: “Ok, so I have this report of child abuse in front of me, what am I going to do. Hmm. If I don’t report it, I’ll make myself and my university the subject of ridicule for a generation, get arrested, have the football coach’s reputation destroyed, and have this be the only thing anyone ever thinks about me or my school for the rest of time. Nah, not going to report it.”
Adviser: “Yeah, but if you don’t report it, you will be ineligible for the Capitol One Bowl.”
President: “CALL 911!!!!!”
Shutting down Penn State football would absolutely send a strong message, but so would exhuming Paterno’s body and decapitating him during halftime of the Super Bowl. And you could end petty theft if you cut off pickpockets’ hands. But at this point, other schools don’t need to see Penn State’s program destroyed to get the message that they should report child rape any more than a clown needs to see PeeWee Herman go to jail to get the message that it’s a bad idea to masturbate at the movies.
Who are we punishing?
Beyond the students and current players, who have done nothing wrong and deserve to play at the school they wanted to, the State College community would bear the enormous economic burden of cancelled games. Some have argued that the State College community is not “innocent” because it helped deify a football program. But does that really make the guy who owns a hotel in Bellefonte or the guy who rents RVs in State College deserving of punishment? If it does, then the entire country is guilty, including the columnists and their media organizations who have done more deification than anyone.
Sure, the community would survive cancelled games — after all, it’s just football. But they’d be casualties of a vengeful napalming of a football program all in the name of … what exactly? We could have dropped an atomic bomb on Tokyo but the war was over.
Any punishment the NCAA could dole out would have no impact on the actual people responsible. That cast of characters includes a child rapist in jail for life, a dead guy, three guys under indictment and a redhead with terrible judgment. They’re all punished. And if you find out more individuals were responsible, punish them, too.
Who are we helping?
When this scandal was unfolding back in November, you couldn’t find a channel or website that wasn’t screaming at you, “This is about the kids!” So if this whole thing should be about the kids, then we have to consider how punishing the Penn State football program helps the kids.
I’m not going to presume that Sandusky’s victims feel one way or the other about punishing the football program, although some people already have, including Jeremy Schapp, who suggested that Paterno’s statue be replaced with one “dedicated to the boys who were raped by Sandusky.” (Do we really think they want a statue of this?) But even if we knew how they felt, and whether they were all united in feeling that way, it wouldn’t matter. We don’t live in a country where the victims of crimes get to decide the punishment of the people who harmed them. If that were the case, your neighborhood thief would have his head on a stake outside King’s Landing. I feel bad for Sandusky’s victims and what they went through is terrible. I don’t pretend to know their pain. But it doesn’t mean they have jurisdiction over the future of Penn State football.
You could actually do a lot more to help the fight against child abuse by not cancelling any football games. Today, the single best resource in perhaps the entire country to raise awareness of child abuse is the Penn State football program. It has a bigger national platform than any university has ever had. They should use it to do something good. Something proactive, not reactive. Because here’s the truth: the same people who are complaining that the football program is too big are only interested in this case to such an extreme degree because the football program is so big. If the football program goes away, so does the spotlight on helping victims of child abuse.
So here’s what the NCAA should say in a nutshell: What happened at Penn State is terrible and can never happen again. We’re going to work with Penn State, and all of our schools, to make sure that it doesn’t. But shutting down football there gets us no closer to that end, so we’re going to use this opportunity to do something positive, not something borne out of a thirst for vengeance.
And maybe we’ll even have some fun watching football along the way.