by Timothy Dahlberg
Banning Penn State from bowl games for four years won’t bring back the innocence Jerry Sandusky took from who knows how many young boys. Taking football scholarships away and vacating wins over the past 14 years will do nothing to help them heal.
And the $60 million fine handed down Monday by the NCAA won’t be nearly enough to buy back Penn State’s self-respect.
Sure, the punishment was extreme. It guts a proud program, and makes Saturdays in the fall a lot less pleasurable for alumni and the millions of fans who bought into the facade Joe Paterno created and believed the football factory wasn’t just about winning but “Success With Honor.”
But there’s only so much Mark Emmert—the suddenly empowered NCAA president—can do. There’s only so much anybody can do.
He can’t turn back the clock to a time before a sexual predator, who Paterno and others did nothing to stop, roamed the campus and raped young boys in the locker room. He can’t somehow wave a magic wand and declare that all is well again in State College.
And he can’t even begin to try to repair the damage that was done to so many lives because grown men were more interested in protecting themselves and their university than children who needed their protection.
That the punishment was accepted so meekly and quickly by Penn State was an indication of how desperate the university is to find some way—any way—to begin crawling out from the morass created by a monster and his eager enablers. There is no moving forward without falling on the sword, and the people who replaced the Paterno lemmings at Penn State seem to have figured that out.
The release of the Freeh report didn’t just cement public opinion against the university; it sparked far greater outrage. Ultimately, it gave Emmert the backing he needed in the byzantine NCAA—where power is but a fleeting thought—to suspend the usual punishment process and level the draconian sanctions that do everything but shut down the program Paterno ran with impunity.
Let Penn State supporters howl all they want at the prospect of years of watching their team get pummeled every time it takes the field. What they forget when they say it is unfair to punish the program for the sins of Sandusky and others, is that the college community that will pay the price is the same one that for many years enjoyed all the benefits of a big-time college team.
Even the NCAA, which long ago abdicated control of college football to the television networks and big conferences, couldn’t mess this one up. The outcry was too strong and, for most people, no punishment could be too great. I found that out last week when I urged Emmert to hit Penn State with at least six years of sanctions, only to be innundated with emails from people who claimed even that was not nearly enough.
Argue about the semantics of the so-called death penalty if you want, but this punishment is just as bad. The money is nothing—even with the additional loss of $13 million a year in bowl revenue-sharing from the Big 10—because the coffers at Penn State are overflowing. Any shortage will surely be remedied by wealthy alumni. But the combination of a four-year bowl ban, scholarship losses and the waiver of transfer rules means the football team will find it awfully hard to win more than a few games a year with players who previously never would have gotten offers to play for the Nittany Lions.
The whole thing is sickening, so wrenching that any sympathy we once felt for Paterno is long gone. He may have been an octogenarian, but he was still so all powerful that he dictated terms of his multimillion-dollar buyout even as the scandal was still unfolding. Unfortunately, for those who still glorify him, the images over the weekend of his statue being removed will prove even more indelible than those of him prowling the sidelines in his oversized dark glasses.
What happened at Penn State is a cautionary tale for any program so wrapped up in the success of a coach that people begin to deify him.
If there is anything good to come out of the whole sordid mess it’s that Emmert finally got a chance to act like a real leader in college athletics rather than a figurehead for the big schools and conferences who keep him in power. That’s important because the NCAA’s own lack of institutional control over its member schools—allowing them to function as quasi pro teams—has contributed to a culture at many major universities where the coaches are more powerful than the school administrators.
Give Emmert a big college cheer for acting quickly, and dispensing justice harshly. It was a bold stroke that, combined with the Sandusky verdict and the removal of the statue in State College, may finally bring down the cult of Joe for good.
It won’t do anything for Sandusky’s victims, but it’s a step toward regaining control of college football.
And maybe someday that could be the enduring legacy of the whole scandal.
(Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org)