Saturday, July 28, 2012

Did the NCAA unfairly punish Penn State football?

This week, the NCAA hit Penn State football with some pretty severe sanctions. The team must pay a $60 million fine, recruit with a reduced number of athletic scholarships for the next four years, all victories since 1998 have been vacated, and the Nittany Lions will be ineligible for bowl play for the next four years.

Since I'm writing a dissertation in which I propose a new justification for punishment, I decided I'd say a little something about what I think about these sanctions. The specific question I will address is this: Given that Jerry Sandusky has been punished by the criminal justice system, and that Joe Paterno is no longer with us, is it fair for the NCAA to impose such severe sanctions on the Penn State football program?

I'll focus my discussion on only two of the sanctions: the vacation of the football victories and the bowl game ban. I assume that my readers are familiar with the sad details of the Penn State scandal.

Regarding the vacated victories, some of my friends have expressed the view that this sanction is unfair because the victories were not simply Paterno's victories, but the victories of all the coaches and players. To vacate these victories as a way of punishing Paterno, they argue, is to unfairly punish a whole generation of Penn State players and coaches.

I don't find this argument compelling. Part of what it means to be part of a team is to be willing to be link your fate, so to speak, to the fate of the team. When the Lakers lose, Kobe doesn't claim a personal victory in his playing well. When the Lakers lose, Kobe loses (and when they win, he wins).

A more apt example of this phenomenon would be the 2000 U.S. Olympic women's 4x400 relay team. The team was stripped of its gold medal after Marion Jones admitted to steroid use. When Jones cheated, the team cheated. They were justly stripped of their medal.

Now, my friends might reply: Sure, but neither Paterno nor Sandusky cheated. The whole team followed the NCAA rules and won those games fair and square.

Fair enough. But the way I see it, in punishing the whole team for the transgressions of Paterno and Sandusky, the NCAA is sending a clear message that running a football program that is clear of corruption and abuse of persons and/or power is a condition on being eligible to win games. Just as one can't "win" an Olympic race on steroids, the NCAA claims, a college program can't win football games while covering up blatant and morally repugnant actions.

Sure, it sucks that everyone must suffer for the actions of a few, but that's all a part of being a team.

Admittedly, it's harder to defend the bowl game ban. After all, the current players were not around when Sandusky was a coach and will not be coached by Joe Paterno. They aren't part of those tainted teams. As such, some would argue, they shouldn't be punished.

This bowl game ban is justified, I think, because it sends a message to other programs: "Mess up like Penn State did, and you'll not only be stripped of victories, you will be barred from competing in any bowl games." So, while the former punishment was backward-looking, this punishment is forward-looking. It seeks not to remedy some past wrong, but to prevent future wrongs.

But, as my lawyer friend Veronica argues, such forward-looking punishments only make sense in circumstances in which we have reason to believe that others are likely to commit offenses similar to the offense being punished. As she argues, it's just not the case that there's a Sandusky/Paterno duo at schools like UF, Alabama, and USC, and, as such, it makes little sense to punish with the aim of deterring similar wrongs at major college football programs. This punishment, she argues, simply places an unfair burden on current Penn State football players.

I think the best response to this objection is this: what the NCAA seeks to deter in banning Penn State from bowl games is not actions similar to those of Sandusky and Paterno, but the football culture that allowed the Sandusky-Paterno cover-up to happen.

The Penn State football culture placed winning and the appearance of integrity over other important values (in this case, the safety of the children Sandusky abused). Recall, in November Penn State students rioted in protest of Paterno's firing. In what would does it make sense to protest in support of a man who turned a blind eye to child abuse?

Additionally, the Penn State fans, students, and alums allowed one man, Joe Paterno, to become such an iconic and (seemingly) permanent fixture at Penn State that he felt it was within his power to sweep Sandusky's abuse under the rug, handling the situation in-house.

No college football program should value winning over morality, or treat one coach as so important and vital to the success of the program that he feels he can violate NCAA regulations and the criminal law to promote the (perceived) interests of his team. The bowl game ban, as I take it, was instituted to deter other programs from following Penn State's example.

Of course, we'll have to wait and see if this Penn State scandal and the subsequent sanctions serve to initiate any long-term changes in big-time college football. But, as they stand, I think the sanctions are just.