Monday, July 23, 2012

Penn State Will Pay the Wages of Sin

Submitted by Guest Author, Roger I. Abrams
The National Collegiate Athletic Association has responded with dispatch to the unspeakable crimes of Jerry Sandusky and those who aided and abetted his perfidy. The Penn State football juggernaut under the leadership of revered coach Joe Paterno has now been revealed for what it is – a cancer in higher education. The NCAA’s swift and sure penalties will act as a stern warning to others around the country who think that an institution’s sports reputation can be protected despite the cost to young men’s lives.

The $60 million fine combined with the reduction in scholarships and the multi-year banning from post-season play is fitting and proper. Vacating Penn State’s victories from 1998-2011 is the only penalty that could be imposed on the Joe Paterno, albeit post-mortem. He will no longer be recognized in the record books as the college football coach with the most lifetime victories.  Suspending football for a few years, the so-called “death penalty” most recently imposed on Southern Methodist University in 1987, would have injured not only Penn State, but also all of its scheduled opponents who would have an open date that could not have been filled. By comparison, the array of NCAA penalties will drive Penn State towards rehabilitating not only its image, but also the reality of the role football plays on its campus. 

Some have questioned the NCAA’s jurisdiction to impose such penalties on member schools. The short answer is that Penn State has already accepted both the penalties and the Association’s power to administer them.  The long answer is that the NCAA is acting in the interest of its 1200 members to cleanse the college sports world of the stench of pedophilia and, more broadly, the arrogance of misguided power. Joe Paterno was a more powerful figure in Happy Valley than any mere college administrator. 

Think for a moment about what Major League Baseball or the National Football League would have done if it were discovered that crimes of this magnitude had occurred in a club’s locker room and that club ownership had been aware of the transgressions. The commissioners would have likely forced the owners to sell their franchises.  All pro sport commissioners have the power to act “in the best interest” of their sports, and perpetrating or allowing criminal assaults to occur in the workplace would warrant a lifetime ban from the game.

While few college sports scandals penetrate the public’s consciousness like the corruption at Penn State, the mindset that countenances such crimes is the rule rather than the exception in college sports. For many, if not most, alumni, of major football-playing universities, the success of the sports team is more important than the success of the physics department. The work of a Nobel-prize winning academic cannot compare with a national championship in football, basketball or hockey.  That is a bizarre contortion of principles and values.

What are semi-professional sports doing at universities in any case? They arose in the nineteenth century as student-run activities and were reluctantly adopted by the colleges where the students had matriculated. The NCAA was created by member schools early in the twentieth century in an effort to reduce the violence in football. College sports grew in social importance as a profit center within academia as an easier way to promote a college’s brand than by enhancing its academic reputation. Coaches became larger than life – big men on campus -- and were compensated accordingly. In many schools, especially at large public universities, it became impossible to stop the momentum towards making academics only a necessary adjunct to sports.

The tragedy at Penn State may be seen years from now as a turning point in college athletics, but I think that is unlikely. No school will make the same errors as Penn State, but the predominance of the sports ethos on campus seems immutable. Programs will change and rules will be rewritten to redress the greatest unfairness, but football and basketball will attract more students and donations to the institution than the men and women faculty members of the school of arts & sciences.

ROGER I. ABRAMS is Richardson Professor of Law at Northeastern University. A recognized leader in the field of sports law, he is the author of Legal Bases: Baseball and the Law,  The First World Series and the Baseball Fanatics of 1903,  and Sports Justice, among others.

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