Penn State Death Penalty?

(Nick Scholnik)– As I’m sure you’re aware, the Nittany Lion football program (and to a larger extent the school itself) has recently undergone intense scrutiny for the way it handled the accusations levied against former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Because school administrator’s turned a blind eye, Sandusky was (again, allegedly) allowed to continue his acts of sexual misconduct unperturbed by law. Not only was he not punished for what he did, but by ignoring what they had seen and heard, those in leadership roles at PSU effectively allowed Sandusky to continue his abuses. The conversation regarding this scandal has shifted, however, from a dialogue that asks how those who committed the crimes ought to be punished (Sandusky himself, the athletic director, etc.), to one asking how the NCAA should punish the PSU football program.


To this point, then, I recently read an article by Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated concerning the legitimacy of the NCAA punishing the Penn State football program with what is known as the “death penalty.” Giving Penn State the death penalty would mean that for a certain number of years the football program would cease to exist; just like that, no more football for PSU. As Rosenberg says, the “death penalty” is not really a death penalty, but more like a “coma.” While the NCAA ultimately did not decide to put PSU football under the death penalty, the punishment was nonetheless very harsh ($60 million in fines, reduced scholarships, vacated wins, a 4 year postseason ban). Despite this, thinking about the pros and cons of a death penalty force us to ask important questions about the institution that is college football.


In his article, Rosenberg lists several thoughtful arguments against the death penalty. The most compelling of these arguments were the following: there is (1) little precedent for the death penalty, (2) the wrong people would be punished by a death penalty, and (3) the punishment would not accomplish what it is supposed to accomplish. While I see value in this argument and believe that the death penalty would have, perhaps, been too harsh, I think that there is a space to disagree with Rosenberg.


Thus, in response to Rosenberg, (1) the reason that there exists little to no precedent supporting the death penalty in this instance is fairly obvious: the college football landscape (perhaps the entire US sports landscape) has never seen a scandal of this magnitude and with this many real life implications. How could there be precedent? (2) Yes, perhaps the wrong people would be punished, but all the football players, as the actual NCAA punishment allows them to do, would be allowed to transfer schools without punishment (oftentimes transfer athletes must wait a significant period of time before they are allowed to play—this punishment would not require a waiting time). Granted, one could argue that PSU students and alumni would be punished, but, as I will later argue, this might be the very essence of a death penalty punishment. And lastly, (3) a “successful” punishment depends upon what one defines as a success. I might say that a successful punishment would be that this never happen again, or I might simply say a successful punishment is one where one is punished for doing something wrong. To say that a death penalty would not accomplish its goals is a bit shortsighted.


While I am not totally comfortable standing behind the notion that a death penalty would have been the appropriate course of action, I think it is important to think about. Why did the NCAA punish PSU, and ultimately what is the goal of the punishment? My answer to these questions would be that I think PSU needs to reassess its values; it needs to put academics over sports, and, as its history suggests, it needs to be forced to do so. It is unacceptable that a football program (ultimately a game that, more and more, is being linked to serious health issues), one huge part of an even bigger university, demand so much attention in a place of higher learning. To this end, I think that PSU, as an institution, needs a shock to its system (see: students protecting Joe Paterno statue); is there a better way to do this than by saying, “We so strongly disapprove of the way PSU handled its football program over the last two decades, that we will no longer allow the university to have a football program until we feel it is able to comply with the standards college athletics are supposed to represent?” I would argue that there is not a better way.


I think the power and importance to which NCAA football has risen is astonishing. Not only does the NCAA make millions and millions of dollars off of student athletes who make no money, but I feel that schools have begun to value football over academic integrity (which, after all, makes economic sense because football brings in millions and millions of dollars). The fact that this all happened at Penn State, that it all happened under Joe Paterno, the quintessential role model, the epitome of ethical, means that after all of this, the only thing that remains clear is that universities that have so much invested in their athletes have convoluted incentives; incentives that, in the instance of PSU, allowed Jerry Sandusky to continual commit the atrocious crimes he committed. As our school President said earlier this week in response to a question from an Amherst alum who asked for her opinion about college football, maybe the programs are “too big not to fail.”