Full disclosure: I’m not really a college sports fans. If I wanted to watch amateurs bumble around—even though they’re trying really hard—I’d go check out a girl’s high school soccer game. When it comes to sports, I’ll stick with the NFL and the NBA and the MLB, thanks.
Leaving aside the fact that college-level athletes simply don’t stack up to their counterparts in the pros, however, is another problem altogether, namely the corruption inherent in the system. The body that oversees college athletics, the NCAA, is a complete and utter joke. The issues surrounding the BCS system are well-known, of course, and have brought shame on all involved for a long time. But that’s small potatoes compared to the storm surrounding Penn State.
The barest fact is this: Penn State’s all-powerful football program and the higher-ups at the school desperate to protect it tried as hard as they could to keep under wraps the truth about child-rape committed by someone intimately involved with said program. This was institutional capture and institutional corruption of a horrific nature. And it was promulgated by an entity that, at least theoretically, could be held accountable by the NCAA. Here’s Sally Jenkins writing in the Washington Post:
In fact, in 2001 Paterno had every reason to suspect Sandusky was a serial defiler of children. In fact, Paterno was not reluctant to interfere in university procedure; he helped dictate it. In fact, this was a football scandal. The crimes were committed by a former assistant football coach in the football building. Ten boys, and 45 criminal counts, at least five of them molested on the Penn State campus after 1998 when Paterno committed the awful misjudgment of continuing to allow Sandusky to bring boys to his locker room, so sure was he that Sandusky was “a good guy.”
We can’t un-rape and un-molest those boys. We can’t remove them from the showers and seize them back from the hands of Sandusky. That should have been an unrelenting source of rage and grief to Paterno. Yet in perhaps the most damaging observation of all, the Freeh report accuses Paterno and his colleagues of “a striking lack of empathy” for the victims.
This is unprecedentedly horrifying, at least in the context of college football. It is far, far worse than schools paying players to play sports. It is far, far worse than giving poor kids’ parents a car or a home or a suitcase full of cash. It is far, far worse than making an extra recruiting call or buying a recruit a nice steak dinner or taking them to a club.
There are ways to punish schools that transgress the moral boundaries that society, to say nothing of the NCAA, has set forth. But there’s only one way to make an example of a school—to say “Any program that does this will be destroyed. SO DO NOT DO THIS.” And that’s the so-called “death penalty.”
Honestly, is there any doubt that Penn State’s football program deserves to be banned from competition for at least a year? To be stripped to nothing and rebuilt? Or, if the corruption is so endemic—if the school’s partisans are so incredibly blinded to legitimate, horrific moral evil—to be stripped to nothing and left to die? Well, maybe that’s just too bad.
Now, this is easy for me to say, as someone who doesn’t particularly care about college sports and who didn’t go to Penn State. The school’s partisans assure us that the death penalty for the football program will also kill the school, in toto. (I could ask how much sense it makes to have a university—a degree-granting, accredited institution of higher education—that inextricably bound to its football team, but I think the problem is obvious.) It’s especially easy to call for such a penalty knowing that the NCAA is a venal, corrupt institution that will do nothing about this even as it brought down the hammer on, say, USC for possibly obtaining a star running back’s family a house.
That’s a problem. As I said: The NCAA’s a joke. If their failure to act in this circumstance doesn’t put the final nail in its coffin, I’m unsure what will.