Tuesday, July 17, 2012
Square One: Penn State, College Ball, and Ourselves.
O.J. Simpson and Michael Vick notwithstanding*, the vast majority of previous sports scandals have been, at their cores, precipitated by one of two factors. There's the financially motivated stuff; throwing the World Series, point shaving, Tim Donaghy, etc. And then there's your run-of-the-mill idiocy of DUI's, PED's, and stuffing loaded guns down the front of one's sweats before a night on the town. This is most of what passes for "appalling" and "tragic" in sports, which is to say occurrences that aren't really either of those things in the grand scheme. Those were acts of some impropriety or unlawfulness which were duly (and occasionally unduly) punished, and they frame much of our context for wrongdoing within the sphere of athletics. Which is why everyone is having such a difficult time codifying our reactions, emotional, mental, and in the case of the NCAA, putative, to what happened in Happy Valley. There is no precedent or reference point immense and awful enough to really calibrate a response beyond unutterable disgust and sadness.
*It is not my intention to minimize the terrible nature of either of those stories, but they were the acts of disturbed individuals which, while monstrous, involved nothing approaching the willful and repeated institutional coverup of horrific crimes that Penn State engaged in from 1998 until last fall.
So the question becomes: what happens now? Whom to punish, how severely, and to what purpose? And, perhaps equally important: who metes out that punishment? I mentioned O.J. and Vick above, but those were fairly straightforward cases wherein the law took its prescribed course. (Even though the conclusion was disgraceful in Simpson's case.) O.J. went off the rails and wound up in jail anyway despite his acquittal. Vick did his time and returned to playing football. Cut and dried.
The waters which various authorities now have to navigate in Penn State's case are more than somewhat murkier. Truth be told, they make the Hudson or the Charles look like clear mountain streams. In the case of the primary actors as identified by the Freeh report, old age and the justice system have done or will do much of the heavy lifting. Joe Paterno is dead, Jerry Sandusky is in jail, and Spainer, Schulz, and Curley are likely going to join him for a very long time. Their lives are certifiably wrecked, which is as it should be. Also, there is the legion of civil cases coming down the pipeline that is apt to significantly cripple Penn State fiscally, just as it has already been crippled in critical (if less tangible) areas like reputation and prestige by the exposure of this scandal. But what further penalties can or should be enacted?
Allow me one suggestion at the outset: take the statue of Joe Paterno down. Do it right now. Firstly because there ought not be bronze statues of shamefully heinous monsters standing anywhere in this country, no matter how many career wins they amassed or how many young men they helped graduate. And secondly, because if the university does not remove it, it will assuredly be defaced, damaged, or destroyed by someone(s) very soon. Then that person or group of people is going to have to go to trial and possibly jail for vandalism, and every possible measure to prevent one single additional human from suffering due to this already hulking tragedy should be taken. (Update: as I was writing this, I refreshed Deadspin to discover that a plane is indeed circling above Penn State and trailing a banner that reads: "Take the statue down or we will." So there's that.)
Having gotten that out of the way, let's deal with the non-legal bodies who could hand down further punishment to Penn State.
Within its purview, the NCAA may impose sanctions up to and including the death penalty on Penn State's football program, and everything is on the table. While I don't necessarily disagree with Penn State football ceasing operations for a season or two or ten or ever, here's what the NCAA should not do: they should not listen to the people I've heard over the past few days saying "if they gave it to SMU, then they must give the death penalty here." There is a precedent there, but precedents are dangerous things to follow blindly and should therefore be thoroughly evaluated before doing so, as most past or present members of the Supreme Court would tell you. I also believe that the NCAA must either enact the death penalty, or declare this outside of their ability to handle altogether and leave it to the courts. Revoking scholarships or bowl eligibility, doing anything less than the maximum, will simply be one more failure. It must be all or nothing. The quagmire of imposing the death penalty is that every hotel, eatery, and bar in or near Happy Valley will suffer greatly without the revenue they derive from home games every fall. Do the proprietors and employees of those places deserve to have their livelihoods jeopardized? Hell, in the worst economic scenario, a football death penalty could decimate Happy Valley entirely. This of course does not account for how many innocent students will lose their scholarships, athletic or otherwise, without the football program and its annual windfall of revenue. Are these outcomes we can live with, simply because someone must pay?
The rebuttal of course, is that SOMEONE MUST PAY. Children were raped. Lives were ruined. Minds and bodies and souls were irrevocably damaged. And every business and student and athlete and alum and townie involved with State College was, to a certain extent, complicit with that. This is what happens when the type of monolithic godhead status ascribed to Joe Paterno and Penn State Football (and to the almighty dollar and college athletics in general) is allowed to reach a fever pitch of the starkest absurdity. The people involved eventually believe that kind of power to be immutable, and that it must be used to protect itself and its wielders and their checkbooks at all costs. It is a fair bet that the men in the Freeh report were not the only ones with ample opportunities to stop what was going on. How many law enforcement officers simply chose not to ask the right (and I use that adjective in every sense) questions. How many people, when they heard the whispers, and there surely must have been a few over these many sickening years, said "shhhhhh! We don't talk about that." The self-perpetuating construct of JoePa's irreproachable sainthood and the sheer reverential gravity of what he and that program meant to the university and the town collapsed, but only because the architects and builders refused to acknowledge the need for severe renovations.
To some extent, Most of those same difficulties lie at the feet of the state government of Pennsylvania as well. Being a public university, I presume the state legislature can impose whatever sanctions it sees fit upon its institution, and they may enter this equation before all is said and done, asking themselves the same questions and weighing the same consequences.
I have no idea what the correct course of action is regarding Penn State. It is probably not my right, and thankfully not my responsibility, to determine how and when and on whom the ax should fall. I do know that this is far from the only college in the country where football owns this kind of status. We can hope that nothing so atrocious ever transpires again, but hoping is a poor substitute for critical evaluation. The intricacies of execution will be difficult questions for another time, but college athletics need an overhaul that has nothing to do with students earning millions for their schools and getting a pittance in return. This is about priorities and how warped they may become. This is about our perceptions and our willingness to change them. When "win at all costs" gets this insane, something has gone terribly wrong. It's us. It's them. It's THE GAME. Now we just have to figure out how to start making it "the game" again. I'm open to suggestions.