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.