Penn State and “collective punishment”

by Sonny Bunch on July 16, 2012

Amongst the few supporters of Penn State, there is an evolving meme: To punish the school by levying the “death penalty” (that is to say, banning the school from playing football competitively for one or several years and stripping it of the ability to grant scholarships) is a measure of “collective punishment.”

In the comments of this-here blog, my old friend Ricky wrote, “The coaches and school administrators are already gone (or dead) and will probably be prosecuted. The only people it will hurt now are the current student athletes and the employees of the stadium. I would just hate to see the innocent pay such a price, but I agree something needs to be done.” I agree with Ricky that it’s unfortunate, but sometimes you have a situation in which corruption is so endemic from top to bottom that a complete tear-down is in order. If the foundation of a structure is compromised, sometimes demolition is in order. The football players will be fine (other schools will snap up the scholarship kids, as happened after SMU got hit with the death penalty). The stadium workers and the like will be hurt, certainly, but we have to remember that this is a school in which janitors, upon seeing the rape of a boy, said nothing because they feared they’d be fired. As I said: corruption from top to bottom.

Over at the Nation, Dave Zirin wrote a remarkably silly piece in which he described dismantling PSU’s football team as “collective punishment,” and argued, “The argument for collective punishment is always morally repugnant.”

This is fatuous. Let’s just deal with the idea that “collective punishment is always morally repugnant.” I wonder if Zirin would agree that it’s “morally repugnant” for a large corporation or organization that has misbehaved and ruined people’s lives to be hit with a huge penalty via lawsuit. I wonder if Zirin thinks the Catholic Church’s payouts for child abuse scandals amounted to “collective punishment.” Think of all the people who will lose their jobs if a business is shut down in a class action lawsuit! Think of all the janitors and office workers and junior employees and nurses who had nothing to do with the asbestos or nicotine or malpractice or whatever else. They were just doing their jobs! They didn’t know.

Look, the simple truth of the matter is that sometimes collective punishment isn’t wrong. Sometimes there’s such a universal belief that nothing has happened that you need to remind the community in question that yes, something bad happened, and yes, you are going to be punished for it. We’re not talking about genocide, obviously. But sanctions? Sanctions are a frequently used and wholly appropriate tool of politics. If your populace believes that a neighboring state deserves to be wiped off the map, well, you’re going to get hit with sanctions and blockades. If your student body protests after it is revealed that a campus figure aided and abetted the rape of little boys, well, you’re going to get hit with sanctions and penalties. And you’re going to deserve it. Sorry.

Of course, none of this really matters because the NCAA is in no position to inflict strong penalties. And really, why should they? After all, it’s not like Penn State did something really terrible like give a football player a car.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Victor Morton July 16, 2012 at 9:49 am

Let me play the dissenting fool, I guess (at least provisionally). I don’t see why this justifies sanctions *from the NCAA* on Penn State. Rape and/or child sex abuse are matters for the police and courts. Sure, the university obstructed investigation of these matters but that still makes it a police matter — arrest and jail the university president, Paterno (if he were alive) and anyone else involved. And if that means Penn State has no coaches left on staff and can’t recruit anyone, so be it. But the NCAA is a sports league, not the courts. Bad as it is, raping children is not a violation of NCAA rules as violations of its “amateurs” rules are. All institutions have their competences, and the NCAA’s is not legal redress of the criminal code. When the subject was the date-rape hysterics of the late-80s, conservatives understood division of function — to quote Paglia “if there’s a real rape, it’s got to go to the police, not some campus grievance committee.” Similarly, the courts punish rapes (and other crimes), not the NCAA.


Sonny Bunch July 16, 2012 at 9:56 am

This is, I think, the strongest case against the NCAA taking action: the purely technocratic, legalistic one.

That being said, this is a case where the sports program acted in such a grossly negligent* fashion—and with such an intense degree of institutional capture, one that throws into doubt the school’s ability to effectively govern itself—that I think the NCAA could make a case for imposing sanctions.

*Is negligent even the right word here? I’m not sure. I think “evil” might be a better term for such willful activities.


Don July 16, 2012 at 10:15 am

I’m not unsympathetic to the argument that criminal behavior is the purview of the courts. However the core values that the NCAA espouses and lists on their website under their “about us” section has this as number 2:

The highest levels of integrity and sportsmanship.

An institution that places its own existence and success above the welfare of students, much less children, is not exhibiting integrity. It’s demonstrating self-interest as a value over justice.

If we want to acknowledge that the NCAA exists as a coordinating entity to run a league, absent ethical or cultural considerations, I don’t really have a problem with that. I think it’s more honest in a lot of ways. But it is not how the NCAA sells itself or how it justifies a big-money business that doesn’t financially compensate its players.

If the NCAA is going to assert that it Is Here For Something More then it needs to walk the walk.


SkinsFanPG July 16, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Seems to me like this is a situation in which collective punishment is absolutely warranted. Did the students rape those boys, or failed to report what they saw? No. But the students are the ones who deified Paterno and the football program to the point where there was an environment in which those crimes could be committed and covered up.
Look at the response to Paterno’s firing: Riots! Look at the response to the Freeh report. At every point in this story the students and alum have sided with Paterno and the program. The students are part of the problem and deserved to be punished as such.


realist July 23, 2012 at 9:58 am

Giving Penn State’s team the death penalty for 10 years would have been far more appropriate. Or at the least, a post-season ban for 10 years. This sentence is far too light.


Wretched July 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm

It is true PSU must prostrate itself before the high lords of the NCAA lest further ill befall, but to suggest that anyone who thinks that the NCAA acted inappropriately, or excessively, is supporting child abuse is both morally and ethically repugnant, and muddy thinking. And justifying collective punishment of the innocent on the ground of “how else can we do it”? is to start down a very slippery slope indeed. There is a reason that collective punishment is banned in wartime by the Geneva conventions. Punishing those with no role in the wrongdoing builds only resentment and resistance, and is counterproductive. We may have to take it, but we don’t have to like it.


Sonny Bunch July 30, 2012 at 4:14 pm

Found a T-shirt you might be interested in:


Wretched July 30, 2012 at 6:10 pm

I commend the creators for their enthusiasm, but it’s a bit over the top for my taste. Communists? Since 1906? My T-shirt is simpler:

“The most basic rule of Justice is simple: punish the guilty; do not punish the innocent”
“What part of that do you not understand?”

I know, it’s a bit too long for a best selling t-shirt. I’ll work on it. And a logo. Perhaps a picture of General Sherman.

I understand the NCAA has the power, and there are pragmatic reasons to exercise it, but that is not an argument that it is right.


Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: