There’s a lot of talk about death in Happy Valley these days.
There’s talk about when someone will presumably shank Jerry Sandusky in prison as he awaits sentencing for his heinous crimes. There’s talk about the departed Joe Paterno and how badly his legacy is now stained. And there’s talk about how the people who covered up Sandusky’s transgressions in the school’s administration don’t deserve to live.
But there’s one discussion about death and Penn State football that’s quietly gaining traction – how the program, after years of covering up child sex abuse, should be shuttered. With increasing regularity, there seems to be more articles and more opinion that the Nittany Lions deserve something vetted one time in the NCAA’s history – the death penalty.
It seems the whole nation wants Penn State football shut down. There isn’t a punishment severe enough for a culture built on secrecy and shadows, one that harbored and enabled one of the most despicable acts associated with humanity in this young century. The Sandusky story transcended sports, transcended the Penn State brand, and it robbed everyone, sports or otherwise, of a little bit of innocence (least of all the victims).
As a result, the calling is now there for the NCAA to levy the harshest of harsh penalties at the institution. But is this something that will happen and should happen to the Nittany Lions? Should the school, full of innocent people, be penalized for the actions of the guilty? Should the students be forced to suffer at the hands of Sandusky, Paterno, Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz, and Timothy Curley? And is this something that even warrants the so-called “death penalty?”
The first piece of the puzzle revolves around grounds for enactment of the penalty. The penalty is literally listed in the NCAA rulebook as the “Repeat Offenders” rule. The actual text of the rule stipulates that if an institution’s athletic team is under association sanctions and commits a flagrant violation within five years of said sanctions, it can be shut down for up to two years.
The rule is also written to grant the NCAA widespread fouls over offenders, stating it can retrograde offenses outside that five year window if it sees fit. If the institution is a “willing participant” in the flagrant offenses and breaking of NCAA rules, the association retains the authority to ban the sport. The biggest thing is that the NCAA is required to either enact the rule if the evidence is completely obvious or explain why it did not.
In this regard, Penn State fits the rules under the secondary terms. The Nittany Lions are not under sanctions, have actually never really been investigated by the association, and have a history, on the field, of positive graduation rates. Paterno’s era is littered with players who got an education, graduated with a degree, and went onto careers outside of football. To that end, Penn State is spared, but under the secondary terms, the NCAA can retrofit rules violations to state that Penn State committed flagrant violations in 1998 when it did not report the suspected actions of Sandusky. The violations are flagrant, and the time period fits well within the framework of the rule.
Here’s the biggest thing – these are the worst offenses committed by a major program and institution in the history of college sports. Corruption and deceit trailed its way well out of the athletics department right up through the Board of Governors and the President of the school. The Board of Governors never asked for an update, the President never addressed it. Everything was supposed to be cleaned internally, covered up, and ignored. Instead, it powder-kegged, grew more and more combustible, and eventually, the explosion left dozens upon dozens in its wake.
For what it’s worth, the Death Penalty criteria needs to be compared against the only program to ever received such a sentence – Southern Methodist University. The SMU Mustangs received the ruling because the NCAA essentially instituted it for them. SMU was on probation, egregiously violated the terms of that probation, and fell into a scenario where if the NCAA didn’t shut them down, it would be a national laughingstock. As such, there needs to be a comparison.
SMU dealt with corruption straight up through the head of its Board of Regents, a man who was actually elected Governor of the great state of Texas. Bill Clements knew about the payments, authorized a slush fund, and authorized the payments out of the “good ole boy” network of boosters. When the school was caught, he threw some of the boosters under the bus but authorized, on school grounds, the continued payment to students.
When SMU was caught, when the reports were made public thanks to David Stanley, a linebacker essentially thrown out of school, the NCAA had no choice. The corruption ran so deep and was so ingrained that the only way to root it out of the SMU fabric was to shut down the program. Had they not shut the program down, the boosters wouldn’t have left, the dirty players wouldn’t have left, Bobby Collins might not’ve left his position as head coach, and the corrupted school governance would’ve never ended. The only way to end the era of mass corruptions with the Mustangs was to end it all and bring it back two years later. Had SMU not been cooperative, it would’ve endured the maximum punishment of the rules. Instead, the NCAA allowed off-season practices and allowed SMU to play road games the year after they were totally shut down. The Mustangs missed their first season after the lost year simply because they couldn’t be competitive, so it was elective.
In this regard, Penn State might actually find itself spared. The Penn State level of corruption is essentially rooted out. The President, the Athletic Director, the head coach of the team, and the perpetrators of the crimes are caught. Paterno’s dead, Sandusky’s in jail, and everyone else is due to head there with him for harboring him. The Nittany Lions, in that regard, have cut ties with their past, one that was grown out of Paterno and Sandusky and eventually blown up in front of them. They even went so far as to bring in a complete outsider, an Ivy League graduate from the National Football League in Bill O’Brien, a guy whose only ties to Paterno is that they both went to Brown University (even though they graduated decades apart).
O’Brien comes from the ultimate school of discipline, having been raised in football life by Bill Belichick. He’s the perfect fit, regardless of record, to bring Penn State out of this public relations abyss. And, if he is truly Belichick’s assistant, he won’t care about what the press is saying about the program, only that it represents itself the way it should, that it respects its opponent, and that it gets the job done. In Belichick’s world, anything happening off the field takes away from that objective, and there’s a zero tolerance policy. Look at Randy Moss andAlbert Haynesworth. There is a forgiving nature to the Belichick tree, but there’s no tolerance for misbehavior.
If nothing else, that should spare Penn State from sanctioning or the death penalty. At the very least, it spares the death penalty. At the very most, the NCAA can look at Penn State and say how it’s taken the necessary steps to start cleaning up its act. It’ll be on probation, maybe, with some light penalties, but they won’t penalize the team for the actions of people in the school. Remember – this whole thing has nothing to do with the players on the team. If that’s true, then the Nittany Lions don’t deserve the punishment. It’s not right to punish the players from playing the games, punish the fans who didn’t know what was going on, punish the brand perverted by people who clearly don’t represent what they stand for.
But that’s the thing. Penn State is dealing with the worst scandal ever unearthed. The proof is now for public viewing that Joe Paterno and the administration knew about the Sandusky affair for a full decade and never did anything about it. Yet there’s still images of people rallying around the Paterno statue, and there’s still reports of people who ran for political platforms defending Joe Paterno for doing nothing. Like them, my initial thought stood around the fact that Paterno turned this around to the administration, washing his hands of it. He had done, I mused, what any of us would’ve done – turned it over to someone else, then distanced himself as far as humanly possible.
But he didn’t. He clearly knew about it, and in light of new evidence, I’ve reserved my right to change my tone. What Paterno did was the most unspeakable act I’ve seen in a long time. It makes Bobby Collins and the SMU scandal look like one second-grader copying off another second-grader’s spelling test. There needs to be some type of absolute in this case. There needs to be punishment the likes of which Penn State will have to deal with for years, a sort of sentence that will hurt the program for longer than its greed-inspired prosperity.
See, here’s the thing. This scandal envelopes a time period from the late 1990s-present day, 2012. This doesn’t take into account the time Sandusky spent before the 1990s from when he was hired in the late 1960s. There’s a 30-year span, to be honest, where Penn State won national championships, and during that time period, we’ll never know if he was raping children then, if Paterno knew about it but it was easier to cover up because there was no email, was no social media. We’ll never know, but we can make an educated guess based off behavioral analysis. It probably did. It was just easier for Sandusky, then Paterno, then the administration to hide. And the images of Penn State people hugging the Paterno statue, paying homage to the man, it’s not what they need to have happen right now.
That’s why if Penn State wants to avoid the death penalty, they should be forced to tear down the Paterno statue and wall. It needs to go. Maybe in a few decades, it can come back. But they need to strip any reference to the scandal out. They need to get rid of the Nittany Lion Club, where Sandusky reportedly took children. They need to renovate and remove the Lasch Building where he reportedly raped them. All of it’s a constant reminder. They need to do something; maybe not all of what I just said, but that Paterno statue has to be #1. That needs to go. It’s a shrine reminding us what’s wrong with that institution, what’s wrong with rabid fans, what’s wrong with this whole damn scenario.
If Penn State wants to avoid the death penalty, they need to eschew what got them into this mess. They need to realize money, power, greed, and ego got them into this whole thing. They tried to protect the brand over everything, and they ended up ruining the brand. Now the school needs to rebrand, and the best way to start is to destroy everything representing what the brand used to be. Whether that means changing the colors, changing the uniforms, or changing the logo, it starts with changing the symbols. Paterno’s statue needs to go. If it doesn’t, then clearly Penn State and its community wants to remember a man who empowered a monster. I’m not saying Penn State needs to replace it with a shrine to the victims or to some cause for child abuse; I would rather see the families move on in private and let their healing go. I’d rather see Penn State donate money to a cause for abused children and do different awareness things outside of a statue or plaque. I’d rather them have nothing there on that spot to symbolize that they’re walking away from the monsters of their past.
It’s not hiding, even though it might be misconstrued as such. It’s destroying the remnants of the past. SMU did it when they moved out Texas Stadium and into the small, on-campus venue. They destroyed the images of Eric Dickerson, Craig James, and others who were thought of to be the worst symbols of that era. And, 25-30 years later, they brought them back into the fold after the appropriate amount of healing after the death penalty. For Penn State, maybe 100 years from now, they’ll be able to mention the Paterno history, but the fact remains that they can’t have a shrine to this man anymore. They need to move on, they need to heal, and they need to do whatever it takes to avoid the death penalty.