On Monday, the NCAA took drastic disciplinary action against Pennsylvania State University in response to a damning report implicating top university officials in a cover-up of child sexual abuse. While detractors have criticized the unprecedented nature of the sanctions, the response was justified by the unprecedented nature of an atrocity enabled by a culture of football worship.
Penn State commisioned the report, led by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. He found that top-ranking Penn State officials — including former head coach Joe Paterno and former President Graham Spanier — enabled assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to rape children in Penn State football facilities by covering up reported incidents.
The NCAA’s response included a fine, a sharp reduction in the number of scholarships Penn State can offer, a four-year ban on postseason play and an erasure of 13 years of football wins.
The first part of the punishment, a $60 million fine to fund programs for the prevention and treatment of child sexual abuse, is indisputably appropriate. Last year alone, Penn State football raked in $43.8 million in profits, according to The Boston Globe. Penn State valued its reputation and the profits that reputation earned over the well-being of innocent children. The fine is a small price to pay.
The other measures, however, are more controversial. Opponents of the sanction claim it unfairly punishes players — past, current and future — who had nothing to do with the cover-up.
These critics, however, fail to recogize that each scholarship Penn State grants and each bowl game it plays add to the profits the team brings in. The point of the sanction is to prevent Penn State from profitting from the unethical institution.
Moreover, these critics merely further the argument that Penn State — and schools with large sports programs in general — has placed football over all. The NCAA, an organization that exists for the sake of college sports, has humbled itself in a way by sending a strong signal that athletic success cannot be the ultimate goal. Wins are meaningless unless they are backed by sportsmanship and ethics.
Twenty-five years ago, the late Paterno responded to another NCAA sanction involving Southern Methodist University by saying, “It’s unbelievable to think that kind of corruption came right from the top of the power structure. The NCAA did what it had to do.”
As it was then, so it is now.