With the Freeh Report on Penn State’s actions in response to Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children making news on Thursday morning, calls have been revived for Penn State’s football program to receive the “death penalty,” the strictest penalty that the NCAA can impose. The last Division I program to receive the “death penalty” was Southern Methodist University’s football team, which did not play in 1987 or 1988 after the university was found to have been making payments to players.
On Thursday morning, the Wikipedia page for the NCAA death penalty had been edited to include a 10-year ban for the program, a penalty that has been called for on many occasions since Sandusky’s crimes began to come to light. The question, however, is whether the death penalty is the right response.
The argument is familiar by now. Supporters of the Penn State program point out that the only people harmed by a “death penalty” are people who had nothing to do with Sandusky’s crimes, ranging from the new coaching staff led by Bill O’Brien to the student-athletes to the rank-and-file members of the community who derive part or all of their income from Penn State football (vendors, facility workers, etc.). The response from the other side is that the plight of the children abused by Sandusky should take priority over the players and coaches (individual community members who suffer financial repercussions rarely seem to enter into the equation). There’s also the argument that an example needs to be made of Penn State, as a deterrent to other universities who put the success of their football teams and other athletic programs first, ahead of moral concerns, academics and the student body at large.
In reality, though, the truth is that the “death penalty” is not just the right thing to do in terms of a deterrent to other programs. It’s the right thing to do for Penn State.
When Penn State faced Houston in the TicketCity bowl in January, the game drew protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church. While the WBC is as detestable an organization as one will ever find on this planet, they won’t be the only ones protesting when Penn State takes the field this season. If allowed to play, the Nittany Lions will do so under the damning shadow of the Freeh Report, whether it’s protesters inside or outside the stadium or simply the media scrutiny that will accompany any season. The best thing for Penn State as an institution is to make a fresh start, beyond what they’ve already done by replacing the coaching staff and the university officials in the Sandusky scandal, like former president Graham Spanier and former athletic director Tim Curley. The “death penalty” would enable that to happen.
Of course, some of the concerns about the effects of a death penalty are valid, and should be addressed. O’Brien and the other coaches who gave up other jobs to come to Penn State and find themselves without work would need to be compensated until they can find new employment. The players, who are without fault (unlike the SMU players in the ’80s), would need to be allowed to transfer without the loss of eligibility. And ordinary individuals whose livelihoods are derived from Penn State football should be compensated in some way for their lost income. If they’re university employees, they should be retained at their regular rate of compensation and given whatever work is appropriate. If they’re not, other remedies should be found, perhaps from the football boosters who helped support the Penn State program while Sandusky was committing his atrocities.
Many of those arguing against the “death penalty” for Penn State have their hearts in the right place. It’s not easy to argue for the punishment of those who did no wrong. However, if those punishments can be addressed, then the NCAA “death penalty” is the right decision, not only for the benefit of the victims and for our educational institutions as a whole, but for Penn State itself.