Walking to my office this morning, I once again marveled at the fact that the set up for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts took well over a week to put up, but has been mostly torn down over the last 24 hours. It’s a metaphor with which no one here needs to be beaten over the head.
Since the release last Thursday of the Freeh Report on the institutional failings that lead to the Sandusky scandal, there has been increasing clamor for the NCAA to institute what has become known as “the death penalty;” that is, shutting down the football program for one year. The argument goes something like this: the NCAA has acted to sanction programs in which student athletes have been caught selling things or accepting payments or gifts and those are laughably small crimes compared to this. It’s true; they are. The logic of this argument, though, fails because in those programs, the crimes (small though they may be) were directly connected with the football program itself. Think about it like this: if “Coach” Sandusky had instead been “Professor” Sandusky and a faculty member in the engineering program, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would be calling for the engineering program to be completely dismantled.
Only NPR (so far) has had the sense to point out that the NCAA is not, in fact, a law enforcement agency. Of the four men implicated by the Freeh Report, not one of them is currently involved with the football program. Only two members of the football program staff remain from Paterno’s tenure. Unless you’re part of the lunatic fringe that genuinely believes that anyone who is a student, employee, or alumnus of the university, ever was a student or employee, anyone who has ever been to a Penn State football game, has driven through State College on a football weekend, or even wandered through the tv section of your local Best Buy on a Saturday afternoon in October MUST have known this happened and is therefore guilty as sin, there is no credible evidence that either of these men knew anything about Sandusky’s crimes. Any effect closing down the football program might have on the university will be completely lost on the men accused of coving up for him. In my heart of hearts, I think what sticks in the craw of the NCAA most is that the one person they truly wish to punish had the audacity to die in January, putting him completely and forever out of their reach.
Nor will stopping football have an enormous impact on most of us who currently work here. It will make me sad to see the football program I have loved since childhood go dark, but it will really only alter what I do for a couple of hours on a handful of Saturday afternoons. In my house, the person it will impact most will be my three year old son, who loves PSU football and understands none of this. He’s resilient, though. He’ll find other things to do. This will be true in most households. We have children to raise, bills to pay, and work to do. Life will go on.
Let’s talk about the people who really will be hurt by this course of action:
1. The student football players. Yes, the argument has been that those here on football scholarships should keep them and still go to school, and that’s the most important thing. There’s no denying, though, that these kids came here to get to play football and do it in front of a national audience. Many of them have aspirations of being professional players, and the way to get to do that is to get to play in front of crowds, journalists, recruiters. Closing the program gives them one less year to do that. It’s hard to argue that this is a fitting punishment for young men who were in elementary school or younger in 1998; kids who are younger, mostly, than Sandusky’s victims.
2. The students in the Blue Band and the Cheerleaders. The Blue Band isn’t a show competition band. They play a small number of performances outside of the halftime football show. The cheerleaders do compete, but most of their appearances are tied to the football games, too. These kids get to travel and perform in front of national audiences because their activities are tied to the football program. Again, only the loonies screaming for those security tapes from Best Buy could attempt to argue that these young people deserve to be punished.
3. The stadium staff/employees. A small army of people work in Beaver Stadium on football weekends; many of them as part time workers. For a number of people in the community, working parking, security, concessions, sales, or assistance is the second job that helps put food on the table and pay mortgages. For many students, it helps pay for housing, tuition, and books. It’s unclear to me what the young woman selling Diet Pepsi at the concession stand has done to deserve to lose her job.
4. Much of the local economy depends on the income from football weekends to sustain its workforce. This includes locally owned restaurants, shops, and hotels. Most of the people employed by these businesses have no affiliation with the university at all.
Aside from all of these people, though, there is another compelling reason why the NCAA should step aside here. The NCAA intervening in a criminal case that isn’t actually about football sends a message, but not the one that everyone screaming for blood hopes it will be. What an NCAA sanction says is that football is SO important to the school that ONLY sanctions from the athletic governing body can truly set things right. Think about this for a moment. What the NCAA is (inadvertently?) saying is that athletics are paramount and that until they’ve had the chance to mete out justice, justice can’t possibly be done.
There are a number of people who will argue that the world is not fair and that if some of these folks suffer as collateral damage in an effort to punish those responsible at Penn State, then so be it. If this were actually an athletic scandal involving the football team as central players, I would agree. I have yet to hear a reasonable argument for why this sanction should be meted out other than “It’s just The Right Thing To do.” I haven’t yet heard who it’s right for; who it will help. And here is, perhaps, the biggest risk in NCAA sanctions, at least to the NCAA and others. If the program “goes dark” for a year, a year from now what you will find is that the university is still standing. There will still be intercollegiate and intra-collegiate athletics going on. There will still be faculty doing nationally and internationally renowned research and teaching. There will still be wonderful staff working hard to make life better for all of us. And there will still be students getting a world class education and doing the most incredible, amazing, selfless things to improve the world. We will all still be here, doing our jobs and living our lives.
Because to us, it was never really about football. It was only ever about football to everyone else.