COLUMN: Who do Penn State sanctions really affect?

The NCAA put the hammer down on Penn State University and specifically the football program Monday morning. The Nittany Lions did not receive the “death penalty,” though, for all intents and purposes they might as well have.

Here’s the damage:

<ul> <li>A $60 million fine, with the money going into an endowment for “external programs preventing child sexual abuse”</li> <li>A vacating of all the victories from 1998-2011</li> <li>A reduction of scholarships to incoming players from 25 to 15 each year for the next four years</li> <li>A four-year ban on postseason play, including the Big 10 championship game, and no revenue sharing from the conferences bowl games</li> <li>Incoming or returning players are free to transfer without restrictions, or the players can stay enrolled in school and on scholarship, but not play football</li> </ul>

“(The penalties) reflect the magnitude of these terrible acts, but also assures Penn state will rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said at a press conference in Indianapolis.

While I completely agree that the athletic culture at Penn State had grown out of control, I’m not sold on the entirety of the sanctions. I am in no way trying to diminish the heinous crimes that went on at Penn State – clearly something needed to happen on a massive scale to condemn those involved in the cover-up – I’m just not sure what that should have been, and the rush by the NCAA to pass judgment certainly has a very large ripple effect.

There were four main people involved in the cover-up at Penn State – Joe Paterno, Gary Shultz, Graham Spanier, and Tim Curley. While three of those four individuals are facing legal action – Paterno passed away in January – it is those replacing them at the university that will suffer.

I’m completely OK with the $60 million fine, and it’s only the tip of the iceberg for what the university is going to have to pay. Civil suits haven’t even been filed yet by the families of the victims, and Penn State (rightly so) will be sending a lot of money their way. The endowment fund created by the money is a great cause, and I’d have been all right with an even higher penalty.

It’s the rest of the sanctions I’m not sold on. The loss in scholarships, the loss of postseason play, and the ability of players to transfer at will is going to deal a death blow to Penn State football for a at least a decade. As a whole, the culture of Penn State football certainly deserves to suffer, however, it is those who did not contribute to the cover-up culture that will suffer the most.

New Nittany Lions head coach Bill O’Brien and his entire staff will now suffer for something they were never involved in. Current Penn State football players and recruits, though granted free ability to transfer, must do so if they ever want to see postseason play. Finally, O’Brien and his staff will have to try and create a competitive team with far less scholarships to hand out – only 65 beginning in 2014.

As for vacating all wins since 1998, that is nothing but a token move by the NCAA and an attempt to wipe Paterno from the record books. I’m not going to delve into the right or wrong of that in this column – I’m already close to 600 words as we speak – but I’ll simply say that I think it’s a pointless move and nothing but a show by the NCAA.

As heinous as the crimes that were committed are, and as terrible as the cover-up was, it provided no competitive advantage on the field of play.

Those who don’t follow sports will be happy to have Paterno’s name removed from the record books, but have no idea whose name replaces his, and those who do follow sports know that vacating a win in hindsight does absolutely nothing. Those games have been played and they’ve been won or lost. The players who won the 2006 Orange Bowl against Florida State will still say they won that game. It’s not like the Seminoles will retroactively be given a trophy (and if that were to happen would it really mean anything?). 

Honestly, I think these sanctions are an attempt by the NCAA to flex its muscle and scare other programs and make others think twice about their actions (or inactions). It’s a nice thought, but in the end, I don’t think this solves anything. There are sick and twisted people in the world, they prey on the weak, and that will continue to happen. These people always think they can beat the system, they think they’ll be the exception, they won’t get caught. Something else, somewhere, will happen, regardless of possible NCAA sanctions.

The NCAA acted swiftly (and honestly with a scary lack of interest for due process) and harshly, and made a point that this type of culture won’t be tolerated. The problem is that the biggest burden of the NCAA’s actions negatively affect those who had nothing to do with the reason for the punishment – new coaches, new personnel, and student-athletes.

What happened at Penn State was so much bigger than football, and I would like to reiterate that some type of punishment absolutely had to come down. I don’t know what that punishment should have been, but I would like to have seen it directed more at those involved rather than those who are left trying to pick up the pieces. 

<em>Timothy R. Olsen completed his undergraduate degree in journalism at Utah State University before earning his master’s degree from the prestigious S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. While there, he served as the beat writer for the Syracuse football and men’s basketball teams. He also worked at the Utah Statesman where he served as the USU football and men’s basketball beat writer. He can be reached at [email protected] or you can follow him on Twitter @TheRealTO.  </em>

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