Leave it to the NCAA to get the Penn State sanctions right, yet still find a way to screw it up.
The debate surrounding the—wait for it—unprecedented penalties handed down to the PSU football program has largely hinged on whether or not the NCAA had any jurisdiction at all over this issue, one that at face value went so far beyond football that it seemed inappropriate and insensitive to make it a football issue.* Criminal matters should be handled by criminal courts, so what basis does the governing body of college sports have to essentially decimate PSU football?
Yesterday, Mark Emmert decided to justify his swift and forceful actions by indicting the very culture that funnels billions into the pockets on his organization:
"The fundamental message here, the gut-check message is, do we have the right balance in our culture?" he said. "Do we have, first and foremost, the academic values of integrity and honesty and responsibility as the drivers of our university? Or are we in a position where hero worship and winning at all costs has subordinated those core values?"
In doing so, Emmert opened up the NCAA to—very fair—criticism about the sheer hypocrisy of the above statement, and that criticism extends to the penalties themselves**. Slamming "hero worship" when the NCAA extravagantly profits from—to take one small example—NCAA Football video games that advertise "a deeper game for a deeper devotion," is remarkably tone-deaf. The NCAA doesn't make their money from "academic values", but from fanatics (it's called March Madness, for chrissakes) who sanctify figures like JoePa and Coach K and Woody and Bo and the athletes upon whose backs this empire is built. The NCAA asking us to suddenly find perspective is like TMZ chastising their readers for caring too much about the lives of people they don't actually know; it's a nice sentiment coming from precisely the wrong source.
What I find more remarkable, however, is that the NCAA had the proper basis to levy these sanctions sitting right in front of them, and instead they took the hypocrisy route. It's simple: Penn State gained a massive, long-term competitive advantage by keeping Sandusky's heinous crimes quiet.
Why did Joe Paterno, when confronted with clear-cut evidence of Sandusky's sexual abuse of Victim 2, decide against alerting the Department of Child Welfare? It wasn't to cover for a friend; it's been well-documented that Paterno and Sandusky weren't exactly close off the field. No, this was a football decision, one that kept up Paterno and Penn State's untarnished image while avoiding a scandal that—even if Paterno did the right thing and reported Sandusky—would bring an enormous amount of negative attention to the program and potentially threaten Paterno's job status.
In March of 2002, when Mike McQueary reported what he had seen in the Penn State locker room to Paterno, Penn State was coming off back-to-back five-win seasons. Paterno was 75 years old, reaching the point where questions abound about his ability to run a successful football program, if he could retire with dignity before PSU would be forced to push him out the door. I can't claim to know the motivation behind the cover-up, but the timing of the 2002 allegations could not have been worse for Paterno from a football perspective.
Instead of facing the situation head-on, Paterno and Penn State kept quiet, and Penn State's program turned around; from 2002-2011, the Nittany Lions went 83-43 with two shared conference titles and two BCS bowl appearances. I have a hard time imagining that Penn State would have compiled such a lofty record while dealing with sexual abuse charges against their former defensive coordinator. I'm guessing JoePa thought much the same.
When looking at the issue from that perspective, the NCAA had little choice but to bring the hammer down on a Penn State program that gained an enormous, decade-long competitive advantage by covering up crimes of a most despicable nature. The scope of the penalties, which almost certainly doom PSU to a decade or more at the bottom of the college football barrel, are just given the severity of the crimes committed*** and their on-field consequences. While I commend the NCAA and Mark Emmert for coming through with these penalties, I have no earthly idea why they decided to base them on hypocrisy when there was such an obvious and justifiable alternative.
*The other point of contention was the potentially disconcerting precedent set by Emmert. To that, I'll say this: when do you expect something remotely close to the PSU situation to arise again? And, if we're unfortunate enough that something similar does occur, would it not merit the same level of action? I don't believe Emmert will exercise this executive power even for cheating as severe as Miami's or UNC's.
**Spencer Hall and Drew Magary, most notably, fell on the "scathing" end of the spectrum.
*** I'm referring to the cover-up, not Sandusky.