The Hammer Comes Down

I know this is not a political story, except in the broader sense of the word. But the latest in the Penn State saga is the dominant news story of the day, and since I’m a confessed college football junkie, I should probably record my reaction to the penalties levied by the NCAA, and give commenters the opportunity to weigh in.

As it happens, I’m visiting family in Georgia this week, and on the way in from the airport yesterday, I listened to Atlanta’s two sports talk radio stations, both of which were featuring commentary on the impending NCAA action. All I heard–incessantly and loudly–was what a travesty it was that the NCAA was punishing “the kids” and the coaches and the football program for the criminal actions of a few men who are either dead (Joe Paterno), in the hoosegow (Jerry Sandusky) or in disgrace and exposed to huge civil suits (former Penn State administrators).

I am slightly conflicted on this subject, not because I’m worried about “the kids” (current players will keep their scholarships and have been liberated from the usual “transfer rule” requiring a year’s layoff before playing elsewhere, which means they’ll mostly be gobbled up by other programs), the coaches (mostly a new crew that came in knowing they were taking jobs in the sports equivalent of a post-nuclear-disaster site), or the program (which might well have been shut down entirely, and could use a few years of experiencing the Agony of Defeat). No, what bugs me is the NCAA’s usual claptrap about “setting a moral model” and “promoting the academic integrity of the schools.” I do not buy the claims of sports critics that big-time athletics drain money from other sports or from academics (at the big schools football subsidizes every other sport, and most donors are mainly interested in premium football seating, and thus wouldn’t transfer their money to the Physics Department if college football was eliminated). But let’s get serious: college football does not exist to inspire young Americans to be good do-bees, or to promote academics, other than perhaps by strenghtening public support for public higher education (at least that’s how it works in SEC country).

Having said that, the NCAA sanctions, and particularly the $60 million fine that hits the Penn State program where it lives, and helps fund sex abuse prevention initiatives, make sense as an exercise in rough justice, which is all they could ever accomplish. It sends a pretty big message to colleges that if you choose to let your athletic departments exist in a nether-land where none of the usual laws, regulations, and safeguards apply, because they bring in so much money, then you are in danger of losing said money along with the game-winning ability to generate even more. Had the NCAA pretended this was all just a matter for the courts, and let Penn State’s football program slide, it would have lost a unique opportunity to promote the kind of general oversight that is needed not just to prevent this same kind of occurrances but those no one can specifically anticipate.

Now I know some, perhaps many, readers have the opposite reaction of those sports-radio talking heads and are shocked that the Penn State disaster hasn’t led to a ban on college football or at least a radical reduction in the money involved. That’s a legitimate point of view, but it’s about as likely to happen as a ban on private possession of firearms–another step that recent tragic events might recommend. So the practical question is what can be done to address the Penn State revelations within the context of the current system. And I’d say the combination of disgrace (symbolized by the removal of the Paterno statue and emphasized by the NCAA’s decision to vacate all of Penn State’s victories from the date when the football staff began willfully ignoring Sandusky’s crimes), the civil suits to come, and the big NCAA hit to the Nittany Lions’ wallet, will have a salutory effect well beyond State College.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.