August 2nd, 2012

 

The Consequences of Allegiance

 

            At last, the Penn State molestation debacle has reached a resolution, at least in a punitive sense.  Obviously though, the damage to Penn State's reputation (rightfully) won't be repaired for a decade...if ever.  The athletic department in Happy Valley will likely have a permanent black stained affixed to its present, future, and especially its past.  But with the NCAA sanctions spelled out, it would appear that PSU has hit its low point.  Which is, for all intents and purposes, a good thing for them.  It will certainly be a long road back for the Nittany Lions from the deplorable acts of that monster Sandusky and the administrators who swept his monstrosity under the rug, but at least that road can now begin.  Penn State knows specifically what it is up against, the guilty parties have been exiled or put in jail, and though the sanctions will severely handcuff their ability to rebuild a competitive football program, football will still go on.  In fact, Penn State, despite an alleged twenty year cover up of a pedophilic sex offender, will not miss a single game.  Many of the victories accrued under Joe Paterno have been vacated due to his alleged participation in the scandal, but those games are gone by events of the past.  Most importantly, those checks have already been cashed (whether the merchandising checks, the ticket sales checks, the television rights checks, and on and on).  So who cares about losing those wins?  The only debate that remains is whether the NCAA handed down the appropriate ruling against Penn State.  And because the NCAA sanctions will do nothing but keep things the way they were, it seems obvious that they most certainly have not.  In fact, the punishment falls many football fields away from fitting the crime.

            Strangely, many think that the NCAA was too harsh on Penn State.  Some called the sanctions "bone-crushing" while others compared NCAA President Mark Emmert to Roger Goodell, the NFL Commissioner known for taking a severe stance on punishing infractions.  Emmert himself said it could be argued this the punishment inflicted on Penn State was, "greater than any other seen in NCAA history."  And it's true, the specifics of the punishment were far reaching: a sixty million dollar fine, a four-year ban on post-season play, and a loss of numerous scholarships.  No one was advocating for leniency in regards to the criminal activities committed by Sandusky and company, but there was a vocal group of commentators who felt that the NCAA sanctions were unduly harsh because of the affected parties: namely, the players and coaches who are currently stationed at PSU.  Some have gone so far as to claim that the NCAA sanctions were only "punishing the innocent."

            There has been an outpouring of sympathy for the peripheral characters in this story.  No one feels bad about Sandusky, or Paterno, or even Penn State; but, the public does seem concerned about the fate of those who depend on PSU football.  Which is what is laughable about the thought that the NCAA sanctions were too "harsh."  The sanctions were actually lenient in the sense that the NCAA didn't even utilize its most effective tool: the Death Penalty (A complete shutdown of an athletic program).  Was Penn State crippled in terms of having a quality football program?  Of course.  But they still have a program.  Like I said, they won't miss a single game, despite having been involved in a long and protracted effort to protect a child molester!  It was easily the worst scandal in collegiate sports history.  If you don't give the death penalty for something like this...I can't imagine what it might be used for.  I don't really want to, as it appears that it would have to be something truly terrible.  (Oh wait, the NCAA already used the Death Penalty on Southern Methodist University in the late 80's.  All they did was pay players to play.  How in the hell does protecting a molester deserve a lesser punishment?)

            The rationale behind the NCAA not inflicting the Death Penalty on Penn State was the same thinking that left sympathizers feeling sorry for the current PSU football program: you can't punish someone for something that someone else did.  There was concern for the affected parties that stemmed beyond the football program as well.  For example, if you shut down football in Happy Valley, what about the vendors and people who work at the stadium who rely on the games to earn a living?  What about the local businesses on PSU's campus that rely on the influx of game-day crowds to keep their businesses afloat?  What about Penn State's opponents in the Big Ten, who rely on the popularity and tradition of Penn State to enhance interest in their own games?  All of these interests are linked to the Penn State football program, and each would suffer if PSU got the Death Penalty and missed even a year of NCAA competition.

            But criminal investigations cannot be viewed in this ripple-effect manner.  Sports is a money machine, sure.  And everyone wants the money machine to keep on churning out money; but no one is entitled to anything.  You hitch your wagon to whatever you want.  If you choose sports, then you are subject to the highs and lows of the industry.  Sports, though we act as if they are, are not national institutions.  What happened at Penn State was, in effect, a criminal conspiracy to harbor a known sex offender and cover up all of his illicit activity.  Because it was the Penn State football program that initiated these criminal efforts, it is the Penn State football program that should get punished.  Critically, though, the punishment must be levied disregarding the ancillary interests affected by said punishment.

            For example, if a drug dealer is arrested, should his family be able to keep the belongings they accrued from his criminal transactions?  Of course not.  They are not necessarily "guilty" by association, but they surely will be "punished" by association.  They will lose the house and cars and jewelry and everything else, even if the family members had no knowledge of the criminal activities that were allowing for those things and are completely innocent.  You can't inherit guilt; you can inherit punishment.  When the department of justice goes after a criminal, they put blinders on in regards to the consequences of their prosecution.  They punish the bad guy and ignore the fallout.

            This is exactly how Penn State should have been treated by the NCAA.  They did the crime; they should lose the privilege of profiting from a football program.  All of the other affected people aren't a consideration.  Why?  Because there is always risk implicit in association.  If I apply for a position in a company, and that company later turns out to be some criminal front for illicit activities, though I may not have known about the criminality, I certainly am not entitled to protection because of my ignorance.  When the company is torn to pieces, there will be no leniency on the crooks in charge just to protect the people that knew nothing.  This isn't a moral or ethical choice on behalf of the justice department or governing bodies like the NCAA; it's simply an unsavory consequence of dealing with large, interconnected organizations like a company, a football program, or a conference of schools.  You go after the guilty parties without regard to the innocent parties that may be affected by your ruling.  You ignore the collateral damage.

            The players (new and old), the coaches, the Pennsylvania business owners, and the Big Ten all put their faith in Penn State.  They all entered a willful contract of some sort with the university (whether document-based or just implied) which meant that they were culpable to the actions of the university.  If the university decides to involve itself in a scandal like it did, the ensuing fallout should land on everyone who stood with it.  Is it a shame that Penn State football players won't be able to play in a bowl game for the entirety of their collegiate career?  Sure.  But remember that they made the choice to commit to PSU.  There is risk inherent in every choice we make.  This is an extreme example of that risk actualizing into inescapable damage, but the rarity of the event shouldn't filter our perception of acceptable punishment.

            The truth is that every criminal or punitive judgment will affect innocent parties.  The system cannot work based on leniency for these peripheral interests.  Penn State deserved to lose its program outright for an extended period of time.  But it didn't.  It didn't even lose a single game.  And though the NCAA has made it damn near impossible for Penn State to be any good, the show will go on as usual for everyone else: the vendors will still sell their hot dogs in the stands, the restaurants and hotels around the stadium will get their business, and the Penn State players and coaches will still get a full NCAA regular season.  Wins were vacated, statues were taken down, and fines were paid, but other than a deeply diminished football program, PSU hasn't changed at all.

            There was no punishment that was too harsh for Penn State.  The NCAA should have thrown everything they could at them.  Instead, they straddled the line: punishing them enough to eviscerate the PSU football program, but refusing to tear down the whole system to send a message about what America expects of its universities.  Penn State is a school first, it must be remembered, and an athletic interest second.  Schools are charged with the responsibility of bettering our nation's youths.  It is almost unthinkable that they would be involved in a scandal to abuse the same youths they were meant to protect.  But they were.  I wouldn't have batted an eye if Penn State lost its football program forever.  Some acts are so brazen, so ostentatiously deviant and criminal, that there should be no call for mercy and no standard by which to offer it.

            As for those whose crime was nothing but associating with Penn State, remember that College Football is run like a business.  And in business, we've learned time and again, the innocent are indistinguishable from the guilty.