Suddenly, Penn State football fans have some hope. Maybe, just maybe, they’re going to get their bowl games back. Maybe, just maybe, Saturdays in Happy Valley will have some luster restored. Maybe, just maybe, the dark shadow of Jerry Sandusky will begin to recede.
Maybe. But I hope not.
Everything hinges on the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, which last week announced it was prepared to examine the sanctions imposed by the NCAA in the wake of the Sandusky affair. In a case over how the $60 million fine paid by Penn State could be used, Judge Anne Covey said the rest of the punishment — the bowl ban; the deletion of Joe Paterno from the record books — could also be under review.
“High school athletes who had no involvement in the criminal acts were prevented from obtaining a free college education,” Covey wrote, explaining why she felt the larger issue merits further review.
“Student-athletes, trainers, coaches and support personnel who were taught and trained to be and do their best were stopped from competing … by the prohibition against post-season play.
“Student-athletes, trainers, coaches, administrators and support personnel who had excelled in their jobs through hard work, practice, commitment, teamwork, sportsmanship, excellence and perseverance were told none of that mattered.”
Covey’s comments so echoed the arguments of Penn State’s most-vociferous post-Sandusky defenders that I had to check: No, she’s not an alumni of the school.
That said, the only appropriate response to Covey’s observations about the fallout from the scandal is: Too bad.
Listen: There are a million reasons to hate the NCAA — and if the current trend toward unionizing student athletes is successful, I’ll joyously dance atop the organization’s bloated, burning husk — but the mere fact it sometimes withholds rewards (which, after all, are not entitlements) is not one of them. What happened to Penn State isn’t really all that unique.
It is always, always the case that NCAA sanctions involving postseason bans and scholarship losses end up punishing people who have no direct guilt in a crime. For decades, students and their coaches have lost the opportunity to get free college educations, or to have their hard work affirmed with an appearance in a playoff game. Boo hoo. Penn State’s advocates ignore the fact that, two head coaches and a few no-penalty transfers later, the people who remain at the university are those who chose to be there, eyes open, and who are willing to co-endure the punishment. Any loss they’ve suffered is of their own volition.
The how and why Penn State was sanctioned are unique, however, and worth considering.
How? Well, it’s true Penn State didn’t go through the usual enforcement process. The school looked at the evidence arrayed against it and decided, in legal parlance, to cop a plea. Penn State’s defenders argue that plea was made under duress, under threat of harsher punishment if Penn State didn’t comply — that is always why defendants take a plea: To avoid the prospect of worse punishment. That agreement is probably why Penn State still has a football team eligible to compete against NCAA competition. In such cases, survivors usually count their lucky stars and move on. Penn State’s partisans, it is now clear, will always live to fight another day.
Then there’s the “why.”
Why? Because Jerry Sandusky molested young boys. Because important people at Penn State knew about it, eventually. Because they passed the buck out of deference to the football program. And because that allowed Jerry Sandusky to keep molesting young boys. All of which may not violate any particular NCAA rule, but it did undermine the underlying ethos of the NCAA’s enforcement regime: Schools are supposed to have control over their athletics programs, not the other way around. Penn State didn’t. Period.
You could argue that last statement is true to some degree of almost every major college sports program in existence, that the culture of college athletics has grown far beyond its useful boundaries. I wouldn’t dispute that. At Penn State, though, the cancer developed into something uniquely evil. It deserved an equally unique, intense response. Thus the sanctions and the $60 million fine.
There are many, many good people at Penn State and among its alumni. Some of them are my friends, and it doesn’t please me to anger them.
But football is still, these years later, the prism through which we view the university. Sue Paterno is making endorsements for the university’s board of trustees, even now. The continued persistent effort of many Penn Staters to get the punishments reversed, to make this bit of history go away, to shout down journalists who don’t stick to their preferred storyline, to keep relitigating the facts — all of this suggests, as always, that they forget (or don’t sufficiently care) about the real victims of Jerry Sandusky. The sanctions should be left in place.
Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.