An education for Penn State
In 1982, the president of the University of San Francisco, the Rev. John Lo Schiavo, suspended the university’s basketball team. The school had a legendary basketball program — the great Bill Russell won two national championships as a player in the 1950s — but it had gotten out of control. Tutors were taking tests for players. Some were taking no-show jobs from boosters. The NCAA had twice put the university on probation.
By late 1981, as yet another scandal was erupting, Lo Schiavo had enough. He pulled the plug before the 1982 season. He said he did it because the basketball team didn’t reflect the values of the university. The school’s self-imposed “death penalty” lasted three seasons, and although USF was never again a basketball power, Lo Schiavo said he never regretted his decision. “We had to make the point,” he said years later, that “we intended to be good citizens.”
Early Monday, the day after Pennsylvania State University took down a statue of Joe Paterno that stood outside Beaver Stadium, the NCAA announced its sanctions against the school. For an organization that is usually as slow as molasses, it moved with astonishing speed; it was scarcely a week after the release of the Freeh report, which outlined in devastating detail the conspiracy at the top of Penn State that enabled Jerry Sandusky’s campaign of sexual abuse. Perhaps it was motivated, as Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, claimed, by the unprecedented nature of the scandal. Or perhaps it was because the organization needed to get this out of the way before the upcoming football season.
I had advocated that the NCAA impose the death penalty on Penn State, and that didn’t happen. I still think Penn State should stop playing football for a while — not so much to atone, but to remind its fans and its community that football had become too important at Penn State; that football had, in fact, corrupted Penn State. I wish Rodney Erickson, the Penn State president, were willing to follow Lo Schiavo’s footsteps.
But he’s not going to do that; even now, football remains too important in the Happy Valley. Nor, of course, did the NCAA impose the death penalty — Emmert claims it was, in part, because innocent bystanders would be hurt. But that’s a silly excuse; its sanctions invariably hurt players and others who have done nothing wrong. That is the nature of the beast.
Having said that, the sanctions were tougher than I thought they would be: a $60 million fine, a big reduction in athletic scholarships, a four-year postseason ban, a Soviet-style eradication of all victories since 1998, and more. Penn State players will be allowed to transfer to other schools without having to sit out a year. (Why every player at every school isn’t granted that basic right is a question for another day.)
On the one hand, the sanctions point to the degree to which the NCAA views college sports through the prism of money. The fine, Emmert said, was about equal to the annual revenue of the Penn State football team. The decision not to suspend football was, in part, a business decision — which only makes sense since college football is very big business. In effect, a moral transgression was being punished with economic sanctions. On the other hand, the sanctions ensure that Penn State will be awful for the foreseeable future. Its fans will have to find other things to do instead of investing their collective identity in Penn State football. That will be a useful discipline.
What was most galling about Emmert’s news conference was its sanctimony. He kept talking about the “values” that athletics was supposed to embody, about how college sports is supposed to be an integral part of academic life, and how it should never overwhelm the mission of the university. “Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people,” he said.
But at big-time sports schools, football is always placed ahead of everything else. The essential hypocrisy of college sports is that too many athletes are not real students — and no one cares. Coaches make millions and lose their jobs if they fail to win. Universities reap millions by filling stadiums and making attractive television deals. They serve as the minor leagues for the pros. Everybody knows this — including the NCAA. The notion that the Penn State case is going to change all of college sports is absurd. College football almost can’t help but corrode academic values. Nothing that happened Monday is going to change any of that.
Except, perhaps, at Penn State itself. Without question, the school has been shaken to its core by this scandal. It used to pretend it was better than other football programs. It can’t anymore. The combination of the scandal and the sanctions create, at least, the possibility that a school that once placed football above everything else may finally learn perspective.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.