A fate worse than death

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I’m writing this essay acknowledging how precarious it is to take what would appear to be a dissenting stance in the aftermath of what took place at Pennsylvania State University for only God knows how long. I would like to, if possible, sensibly evaluate the repercussions of PSU’s behavior. I am aware of how I might be perceived in using quantifying language, but that is what we choose to do when we render judgment upon actions — or in this case, inactions — we deem intolerable.

Remember Southern Methodist University? Many did when wondering what should happen to PSU. SMU is practically a metaphor for the Death Penalty, which is termination of all football operations for one year. In fact, a story broke that PSU could have faced a four-year Death Penalty, suggesting that what the penalties the NCAA actually imposed were an Act of Mercy.

Negative. The NCAA’s suggestion of a 4-year death penalty is the equivalent of drawing a Royal Flush and raising the ante knowing your last opponent has to go all-in or fold lest they not have enough money to buy into the next hand.

I do not think that those hoping for the Death Penalty fully appreciate how the virtual termination of football would impact that community. We’re talking about economic quality-of-life here, not just football. I can remember when I was in college, and my roommate depended upon working security at Auburn University home games for gas money, and his 1988 Mitsubishi Gallant was almost always close to “E.” And that’s just a nominal, anecdotal example. Think about the hotels, restaurants, and apparel stores that would be affected by a complete football ban. The NCAA would not just be punishing PSU, but executing a college town. Scorched Earth economics for decisions made by administrators with whom most people in town may have never had contact.

These are among the reasons why I do not buy the “it’s just football” critique. Such approaches follow the path of making the political choice to not buy at a certain store because of its business practices, and that decision trickles down to the employee whose hours are reduced because of a lack of patronage (ironically, the cost differential between profit and hourly wages is called “labor”). And that is before considering how football, or sports in general, change lives. That grotesquely fat kid everyone made fun of is now, after a year of training, the most-sought offensive guard in the state, probably winning javelin competitions in the spring. The dude who never took school seriously is now a pseudo-scholar because he needs the grades for eligibility. To suggest that sports are superfluous luxuries…no, that only works at the professional level where players are unionized.

The SMU and the various universities that were recipients of the Death Penalty were justified in their plight for violations that had to do with the competitive nature of the relevant sport. We’re talking player and coaching recruiting violations, bribes, gambling, throwing games, manipulating scores, and professional players posing as college athletes. The closest PSU equivalent that I can come up with is that Jerry Sandusky’s persistent employment once the Athletic Director was notified of his behavior would be considered as PSU maintaining “an unfair competitive advantage” over its competition. Yes, Sandusky will forever be synonymous with the boogey-man, but he was a football coach, and concretely evaluating how he could influence players’ football IQ and morale simply isn’t possible, let alone to the degree that his presence would be deemed unfair, particularly at a school known historically for its defense.

I’m in the camp where I do believe that PSU as an institution did indeed fail from a LEGAL standpoint, but legal questions are handled by the justice department, not the NCAA. I resist saying that PSU failed from a “moral” standpoint because we’re talking about the NCAA, a billion-dollar industry, and I have yet to encounter such an industry that I would consider pristine in its business practices, and I am not the kind of person who engages in the mental gymnastics of convincing myself that one injustice is of greater importance than another, and therefore, should accrue penalties accordingly. I didn’t think that Michael Vick’s dog-fighting ring was a big deal. But Uncle Sam did, and that is something many fail to remember, if not understand completely: Vick did not do time for the dog fighting. For that alone, he would have been placed on probation with a heavy fine, and maybe community service. House arrest at the worst. He went to jail because the monies that were circulated in the dog fighting operation were his, and the IRS did not receive its cut.

But back to PSU and Sandusky, “He shouldn’t have been there” does not justify the hammer the NCAA threw down.

The least of the sanctions is the $60 million-dollar fine (I say this because, of course, I’m a high-roller, right?). If I am getting my facts correct, is the equivalent to the total annual earnings the university produces via its football program. Stiff, but not insurmountable. The university will be paying it over the course of several years rather than how the NFL fines its players by taking the money directly from the check. And of course, with trustees in play, we’re technically dealing with inexhaustible resources.

That four-year bowl ban is huge. HUGE! We’re talking, if you come to Penn State as a senior, you might never have a post-season (red-shirts considered). If by some miracle Penn State were able to go undefeated, it would be a profound joke because they could not be considered champion (Behold: A half-decade of SEC dominance has finally convinced the NCAA that it does care about a true champion and is moving toward a four team playoff). Of course this will cripple recruiting. What 5-star athlete would commit career suicide by choosing a school with such a scarred reputation? There is no appeal, no extra luster. No promise of leaving the frigid midwest in late December and early January for Florida or California.

There is then the scholarship reduction, from 85 total to 65 for four years. It isn’t as devastating as the experts claim. Yes, you need and want depth on your teams, and it would be ideal to secure talent for the future, but again, you are not going to be able to attract top-tier talent if they have no chance of competing against the best, playing “under the lights” as we say, Prime Time after the Christmas leftovers have been devoured. Without the bowl ban, however, I might think that PSU would feel the aching impact of its scholarship reduction. A team has to field eleven guys at a time. Twenty-two for offense and defense, another fifteen for special teams (unique kicker and punter included, return specialists as well) makes for thirty-seven players in total. Throw in substitutions, and I’ll give you fifty players, with fifteen to spare for 65. A football program can manage, but yes, they will be relegated to mediocrity.

All of these sanctions are more or less severe. “Worse than the Death Penalty” some have said. Others, “You WISH you were dead.” But I sincerely do not believe that any of them are as myopic as what the NCAA did to PSU’s golden calf.

The last penalty is a “legacy” penalty, one that impacts Joe Paterno’s (posthumous) reputation. I seriously wonder if the NCAA remembered who performed the molestations. If we want to render “enabler” as a synonym for an accomplice, then we’re now talking about the patrons and owner of bars as culpable for drunk driving friends and patrons. It is a reach.

The NCAA vacated 112 PSU wins, dating back to 1998 when Jerry Sandusky was the defensive coordinator and Mike McQueary was quarterback.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Done? Ok. Now we know that the NCAA is trying to send the nation the message that “the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mindset in which football will never again be placed ahead of education, nurturing and protecting young people” as Mark Emmert has said. That’s fine, as most of the penalties entail, but altering the wins record is a superfluous gesture. What purpose does it serve? Ensuring that Joe Paterno will not be associated with being one of the greatest NCAA coaches of all time? Records are one thing, but memories are another, and the NCAA has no MiB Neuralyzers for those who have been positively impacted by the sixty-two years Paterno was at Penn State, and they are legion.

Maurice Pogue spends his time spoiling the fun by taking the joke too seriously.

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