Sanctioning the Wrong Squad: Penn State Football’s Unfair Punishment

We all know by now what happened at Penn State University.

A former assistant on the football team molested many young boys over a long period of time. Guilty.

Legendary head coach Joe Paterno, other coaches on his staff, and certain members of the school’s faculty and athletic department failed to alert authorities to questionable activity over all those years for a multitude of immoral reasons. Guilty.

And the football players on the team, then AND now obviously played a role in the incidents by knowing and playing for the coaches in question, and using the same locker room showers as the victims. Wait. Guilty?

HOW?

This was the big news this past Monday morning. Taken directly from ESPN.com:

The NCAA has hit Penn State with a $60 million sanction, a four-year football postseason ban and a vacation of all wins dating to 1998, the organization said Monday morning. The career record of Joe Paterno will reflect these vacated records, the NCAA said.

Penn State also must reduce 10 initial and 20 total scholarships each year for a four-year period.

I remember reading that text message alert and at first, thinking hmm, that seems fair. And then I got past the word “sanction” and began to have my doubts.

Cutting scholarships in half? A four-year postseason ban? “Vacating” wins, as if they never happened?

Absolutely, utterly, incredibly ridiculous decisions by the NCAA. 

Let me clarify, first of all. I get it. The NCAA needed to make a statement and they definitely did. They needed to crack down HARD on Penn State, and they did. They needed to hold someone accountable and dole out big punishment. And they did.

Only…they did it to the wrong people.

The people who needed to be punished have either been imprisoned or fired and completely humiliated in the court of public opinion. The punishments for anyone who won’t end up behind bars are that their names will forever be associated with this fiasco and they likely will never be hired or respected in any profession anywhere, ever again.

So why the extra sanctions that affect the entire Penn State football program, even though the remaining aspects of that program had absolutely nothing to do with the Sandusky situation, aside from wearing the same team colors as the disgraced ex-coordinator?

USC (one of the schools Penn State’s star running back, Silas Redd, has been rumored to be in contact about transferring, ironically enough) received punishment because the football program and one of its star players were irresponsible and broke rules. Okay, fair. That is football business.

This? Not so much. Just because it involved a member of the football team’s coaching staff and his disgusting off-the-field exploits, some of which happened in the facilities of Beaver Stadium, does not mean that it was football business.

Joe Paterno passed away. Sandusky is going to prison. The others associated with this mess are shamed and unemployed. So how is a four-year postseason ban on these college kids who are trying to win football games and continue their quests to the NFL, going to help anything?

How will cutting scholarships in half benefit the NCAA, besides allowing them to sit smugly behind a desk and say “Ha! Look what we did!” while flexing their muscles in the mirror? In fact, that will save Penn State money in the end. Oops.

And vacating wins? Hard-fought victories by the (former) all-time college football wins leader, Paterno and his players over the years? In which way does that have anything at all to do with Jerry Sandusky molesting young boys?

Sandusky’s actions did not give Penn State football in that time span any type of competitive advantage or break any football rules that would deem such action necessary.

So *poof* goes over 100 wins out of the record books. As if people will look back on that time period in Penn State football history and shake their heads: “Damn shame. If Sandusky hadn’t performed extra curricular activities off the field, away from the football field all those years, State would have 100 more wins.”

Please.

My interpretation of the penalties handed down by the NCAA is as close to the “death penalty” that SMU received in the 80’s as can be. How’s SMU doing, you might ask? Just recovering now…25 years later.

Penn State has the chops to survive these sanctions much better than SMU did, because they are a bigger, better program. But the fact that they are even that close to pure football apocalypse is pretty frustrating. SMU was paying its players through booster slush funds, resulting in the cancellation of the team’s entire 1987 season.

How is punishing players who played under a perverted, corrupt, immoral coaching staff, yet completely clean themselves, at all fair?

An umbrella organization like the NCAA in a regular business setting would never take this path. If a major corporation found that some of its top board members were involved in sex crimes and cover-ups, would they essentially fire every employee in the company? Never.

Look. Again, I understand the penalty needed to be harsh. In fact, I would argue that everyone involved in the scandal should be imprisoned at least temporarily. But the group of people taking the hardest hit in this punishment situation (aside from Sandusky himself) are the innocent players. Many of whom were not even in middle school when the crimes took place.

Now all the hard work they put together over their lives to play a sport they love and earn a scholarship to a high-profile Division I program is pointless. The scholarships they  earned are suddenly sullied. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t sensible.

Bill O’Brien, the new coach at Penn State, and one of his star linebackers know it too. And they aren’t keeping their mouths shut:

Mauti said Penn State players are being badgered because there are few rules on how opposing coaches can contact them. He said at least 40 schools have tried to contact him even though he’s maintained that he intends to stay at PSU.

“There’s been coaches hounding our players (with) 10-12 calls per day,” Mauti said. “(They are) on our campus, outside our classrooms. Even some coaches from this conference.

“At this point in time, the fact that there’s no rules — the door has been opened,” he added. “You don’t have to have ethics in this game. That’s the game they created.”

Asked how Emmert could say so much about integrity while handing down the punishments and then create this sort of situation, Mauti at first replied: “I think it’s kind of ironic.”

He was asked to elaborate.

“For them to say that is helping (the players), for them to say they’re doing us a favor to (be able to transfer) with no rules — I’m going to choose my word carefully here — it’s a joke,” Mauti said. “An absolute joke.”

These are sections of a story printed here, about senior linebacker Michael Mauti’s comments regarding the sanctions. Read on:

He also took exception to Emmert’s comments that Penn State football had not placed the proper emphasis on academics.

“Who said that?” Mauti said. “Penn State graduates eight of 10 players. No other school does that. To say my degree means less because of (the Sandusky scandal), no way.

“Hey, I was watching Barney when that happened,” he added, referring to the alleged 2001 cover up of Sandusky’s actions by school officials. “Our freshmen were like 6 years old.”

Here, you have a senior leader of this team who has dedicated the last four years to playing football for Penn State, ultimately to achieve a larger dream of being in the NFL. Here, you have a player who is dedicated, honorable, well-spoken and intelligent. Here, you have a player being punished for something he had no hand in. Something that occurred when he was ten years old. 

Take off the blinders, world. Crucify the people who actually played a role in the crimes. Don’t lump “Penn State” and “Penn State football” into one category with Sandusky. Yes, he wore the colors, but anyone in Happy Valley will tell you…

…Sandusky is NOT Penn State. The players are. Let them play, and give Penn State a shot at revitalizing its image. The only mistake the entire entity of the University made was hiring someone with strange sexual cravings.

There’s a hell of a lot more to this school and this football team. But with the sanctions against them, it could be years before people realize that again.

Best of luck to the Penn State football team. They will need it.

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