The media reaction to the penalties levied against Penn State have fallen into two visible and easily definable camps: the NCAA is stupid, and has no right to act in this manner, and the NCAA made the right decision in heavily punishing a program whose conduct was so heinous, not even the death penalty was enough. It's easy and effective journalism to move to an extreme, and people will read those articles, and they will provoke a response. But Monday's ruling was not that clear-cut.
Who was this ruling meant to hurt? If the answer is everybody, then congratulations NCAA, you nailed it. You punished the coaches, the players, the athletic department, the university-at-large, and the Paterno family. You even managed to add to the perpetual bummer that the rest of the college football world has been stewing in since last November. But why them? For example, what did redshirt freshman wide receiver Shane Phillips have to do with Jerry Sandusky's crimes and the university's subsequent gross misprioritization? Phillips was five years old in 1998, when Sandusky's documented crimes began. His crime? Working hard enough to earn a high school degree, and earn a place on one of the most historic college football teams in history. And now he's faced with the choice of uprooting himself only weeks before classes and practices starts, or play football for the Fightin' Stigma, where you can lose by 30 on Saturdays, and avoid telling strangers where you go to school the rest of the week. Shane Phillips, along with the rest of his teammates, got fucked by this deal. And I wouldn't blame every single player on the team if they transferred. And I wouldn't blame head coach Bill O'Brien one bit for applying for every other coaching job in the country, from college head coach to middle school offensive coordinator. O'Brien, who had no connection whatsoever to Penn State University prior to his hiring on January 7th, will now be forced to try and keep a football program afloat with no postseason aspirations, fewer players, and no financial margin for error. He knew this job wouldn't be easy when he took. He couldn't have known the job would be impossible.
The bowl ban, the scholarship reductions, and the probation weren't just for Penn State; they were for every organization under the NCAA's jurisdiction. It's not as though this serves as a warning to college football to not harbor sexual deviants; that's common sense to all but the most out of touch and misguided. This was the chance for the NCAA to seem both powerful and relevant, and they seized it. This was the announcement to the college sports world: we still matter, really we do.
I wasn't expecting the vacating of wins. In hindsight, it was obvious; for a punishment that is first and foremost a symbolic warhammer, what better way send a message than to erase thirteen years of history and knock Coach Paterno down the record books? But in the wake of his firing, the release of the Freeh report, and the Saddamming of his statue, Paterno's record for most wins in college football was already as relevant to his legacy as Barry Bonds' home run record is to the slugger's public image. So this gesture is about the NCAA rewriting history, attempting to move forward by denying the existence of those years. But this isn't something that can be erased. And the NCAA needed to use this moment as a time for change, turning the darkest episode in sports into a future less grim. The way to do that? Money.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying it's acceptable to throw money at a problem until it goes away. This won't ever go away, and on the Penn State campus, it shouldn't go away. The sixty million dollars Penn State will have to pay will go towards programs that support child safety, and that's a good start. But why should that $60,000,000 be the end of Penn State's obligation? This is a football program that consistently ranks in the top 10 in revenue. If it were up to me, it'd be sixty million dollars, plus half of all profit Penn State makes from football...from now until the end of the program, or football, or the world, whichever comes first. Charities would have a steady stream of funds, the Penn State athletic department would have a constant reminder of their misdeeds, and, for all fans of college football, we would get to root for Penn State again. We would get to root for Penn State to succeed, so the fight against child abuse can be won. That's a cause worth protecting, not millions in booster funds and an old man's legacy.
Perhaps the most tragic facet to this outcome? That Joe Paterno wasn't around to see the fallout from the culture of deceit he helped foster. When JoePa retired, he was seen as collateral damage, the coaching mentor and legend who simply thought he was following protocol when he passed the allegations up the chain of command. All he lived and breathed was football, and at the time it made him endearing to fans and impressive to recruits. But now we see that the unencumbered passion he had for the game made him naive and dangerous when it came to the bigger picture. He couldn't handle the idea of an off-field scandal damaging all he had built. He chose to conceal, rather than confront. And when football was taken away from him, his body succumbed. His legacy may be tarnished, his image torn down, but he wasn't around to see it happen. Others live on in his place, and they are the ones that carry the burden the NCAA forced upon Penn State. And all the action taken is meaningless, if the college football community fails to learn the truth: football is just a game. At Penn State, it was placed high on a pedestal. And as it has crashed down into the valley, this meaningless game, hopefully the college football community will choose to place more appropriate things atop its list of priorities.