On Friday, January 16, the National Collegiate Athletic Association uncharacteristically reversed a previous punishment they had put in place. What made this course of action even more unusual was that this original decision had, at the time of its conception in 2012, seemed to be a definitive response to one of the biggest blotches on the history of college athletics: the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal at Penn State.
Jerry Sandusky was a longtime assistant coach for Penn State’s once-illustrious football program. He was charged in 2011 with 45 counts of molesting ten boys while under the watch of Penn State’s leadership. Fittingly, he received a sentence of 30 to 60 years. The issues arose with the findings that Penn State’s leadership and, in particular, coach Joe Paterno, had been aware of the horrid violations being committed by Sandusky and did little to stop him. As punishment for this, the NCAA decided to do four things in a 2012 consent decree: fine the university $60 million, ban them from bowl games for four years, temporarily remove scholarships for athletes, and remove 112 victories dating from 1998, when the first complaint against Sandusky had been filed. Furthermore, Paterno was fired during the 2011 season due to evidence that suggested he had known about Sandusky’s crimes but had not acted sufficiently upon them.
In a standard situation, such a set of punishments would have indeed closed the case. The fine was enough to have a financial impact on the elite athletic university, and the rest was convincing enough to deter the leadership at Penn State and other universities from ignoring such behavior under their watch. However, Joe Paterno is no regular coach; he is among the winningest collegiate coaches of all time and, most importantly, had the most wins of any coach before they were removed by the 2012 decree. This was the source of the immense debate following the decision. Many of those who attended and are currently attending Penn State see Paterno as a source of pride for the university; furthermore, his years as the coach of the football team are viewed as years of historically-defining greatness and achievement by anyone familiar with college athletics. The removal of the wins, and, therefore, the removal of Paterno from his definitive perch as the greatest collegiate coach ever was seen as a move of unjust disrespect towards Paterno and Penn State. People believed that the punishment had gone beyond punishing for the actual crime committed and had overstepped by tarnishing the image of a beloved icon for Penn State, collegiate sports and sports as a whole.
Paterno’s death in 2012 may have helped add fuel to the fire of protest surrounding the decree. The NCAA seems to have picked up on this and gradually began to take back the decisions it had made. Last September, it restored scholarships and bowl eligibility to Penn State, and now it has restored the 112 wins to Penn State, effectively restoring Paterno’s position as the winningest collegiate coach of all time.
At this point in the proceedings, new questions are being asked by those watching. Were the NCAA’s original punishments indeed too harsh? By extension, were the reversals of the decisions valid? On the other hand, were the punishments actually appropriate? Did the NCAA reverse the decisions simply because it was overwhelmed by the criticism it had received?
The answer to the question is complex, and there have been many divided responses by fans and sports figures alike. One part of it, however, is actually relatively straightforward in my opinion. The NCAA itself usually isn’t very unpredictable; it is a multi-billion dollar industry with, for the most part, the sole goals of making profit and expanding its brand. It tends to passively allow issues within the system if no one cries out about them. However, once public disapproval emerges, the NCAA usually responds by trying to appease the public. While the reversal of the decision is unusual in terms of the NCAA’s history with punishment, it is still consistent with the idea of appeasing to maintain approval. The only problem for it in this case was that it miscalculated in the beginning; it saw the extreme crimes being committed under the leadership at Penn State and knew that the institution would have to be held accountable. The specific actions that the NCAA took to reach this end, however, did not turn out exactly as planned because of the unusually distinguished place that Paterno has in history. Paterno’s positive effect on history has made him into a legend, and there are few things that provoke people’s emotions as much as disrespect towards legends. The NCAA, in response to the discontent, possibly felt that it had overstepped and probably moved to correct this by reversing its decisions.
The question that always ends up being asked is that of what an institution, if it were morally-bound and not driven by profit, should do when it is faced with a challenge from the public. This is an extremely difficult question in this particular scenario because of Paterno’s unrivaled stature within the world of sports, and I cannot say that I have a clear answer. The NCAA did make some good moves, most notably the $60 million fine on Penn State which is being invested into anti-child abuse organizations in the state of Pennsylvania. The NCAA is not inherently evil; it is capable of doing things that are morally sound. But why is it that more needs to be done to that end? Why isn’t the fine enough to free the NCAA of its moral duties in this situation?
The issue is that Paterno, despite his stature and all he has done for Penn State, college football, and sports in general, still did something extremely wrong. He, along with others involved with the leadership at Penn State, allowed undeniably awful acts to be committed by one of their personnel on their grounds. He still has to be held accountable, even in death, to deter others from passiveness such as his at other institutions and to make them understand that they will be held accountable and punished if they handle people like Sandusky poorly. There needs to be some asterisk to Paterno’s legacy to acknowledge that there was a heinous blemish during his reign along with his accomplishments and contributions. If the NCAA wants to achieve that, which it should to maintain the integrity of leadership within collegiate athletics, it will have to find an appropriate punishment to hand to Paterno and Penn State. Unfortunately, with the reversals of their original decisions, they seem to have realized that they don’t have the answers and that they have been dealt a seemingly impossible task. This leads all of our analysis and speculation to a dark, anticipated conclusion: that the NCAA will, despite its attempts, be stuck doing nothing when collegiate sports need it to do so much more.