Southern Methodist University’s football death penalty is a tale of punitive lore. Once a collegiate powerhouse, the season-long ban handed down by the NCAA crippled the program in such a way that the program is still on the rebound twenty-five years later,. In the years since the scandal, the NCAA has meted out punishment for infraction after infraction. But even in the most serious cases, there are few calls for the death penalty. Outrage notwithstanding, on the college football landscape, many still see the ruins of Hiroshima as they gaze upon the fate of the Mustangs and are slow to call for such punishment again.
As a college football fan, there has never been a point in my life in which I felt the death penalty was warranted for a program. Perhaps I’m cynical, but my notions on NCAA punishments are tempered by the hypocrisy that is the NCAA and the big business of so-called amateur athletics. A billion-dollar empire overseen by a governing body that preaches the virtues of amateurism, wants us to believe that an education worth a few hundred thousand dollars is a perfectly fair trade for kids making schools millions of dollars a year. (Please spare me the “intangible value” argument: top-flight athletes are being afforded an education that has a price tag just like tickets and merchandise have price tags.)
With the release of the Freeh Report, many are focused on the gross negligence and outright malfeasance of the powers that be at Penn State. While disturbed and disappointed, I can’t help but be utterly unsurprised. Disgusted, but unsurprised: people in positions of authority abused their power–and, in a manner of speaking, young children–to protect the brand and the bottom line. Sadly, I doubt it was a matter of not caring about kids; it was a matter of caring about money more. Depraved? Utterly. But people can be staggeringly…people-ish, especially when trying to protect false idols and convince donors to fork over money year after year. Would I like to see the grossest accessories to these crimes stand trial? I would, but the punishments cannot be left to the state of Pennsylvania.
I doubt the university will voluntarily shutter the football program for a season. The Sandusky affair is but a maelstrom on an ocean of money in which the institution enjoys swimming. I have to believe a certain line of thinking is as follows:
"If certain people covered up child abuse for decades without punishment, why should we punish ourselves when that guy is about to go to jail forever and those individuals are no longer Penn Staters? And really, is it fair to punish football for the depravity of a pedophile and the indifference of others?"
Here is where the NCAA needs to bust out the whoopin’ stick and say, “…Yeah.”
For decades, the university’s most powerful leadership heard whispers of sickening conduct that, at least, needed to be investigated and did nothing about it. Why? Because they were protecting the program and all the money it brought to the school. While such action isn’t performance enhancing, it certainly strikes me as performance preserving. They protected the brand to get the quality recruits. Quality recruits bring in the wins. Wins bring in fans and bowl games. Fans and bowl games bring in money. That flow would have been disrupted by the revelation of a beloved assistant coach buggering boys in the shower. People tend to frown on child molestation and are, more often than not, disinclined to wittingly paying to support it. Penn State didn’t want to rock the money boat. It’s time for the NCAA to flip the boat over.
Penn State deserves no less than what happened to SMU. We’re not talking about paying players under the table; we’re talking about the systematic protection of a man who was molesting boys. A school covered up ongoing criminal activity for the benefit of the football program and, by extension, the university itself. Will innocent people who don’t deserve to be penalized be affected? Yup. That’s not the NCAA’s problem. Complaints should start and end in State College. Collateral damage is the unfortunate consequence when people break the law.
It is the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s job to govern. That governance sometimes means bringing order to unruly elements in said Association. For a collective that so often drops the ball, this is an opportunity to put every school on notice: if you cover up wrongdoing, we will be severe in our action. Break the rules and you will lose what you sought to protect.