ANN ARBOR, MI - FILE: Coach Joe Paterno of the Penn State Nittany Lions watches his players during a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Beaver Stadium on November 18, 1995 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. According to reports on November 9, 2011, Paterno will step down as head coach at the end of the season amid allegations that former assistant Jerry Sandusky was involved with child sex abuse. (Photo by Ken White/Allsport)
She'd felt Wrong all her life and now she had a chance to tell him how Wrong he was. She had to come to tell Alfred that he was wrong to dribble ice cream on his clean, freshly pressed pants. He was wrong not to recognize Joe Person when Joe was nice enough to drop in. He was wrong not to look at snapshots of Aaron and Caleb and Jonah. He was wrong not to be excited that Alison had given birth to two slightly underweight baby girls....He was wrong to attempt to hang himself with bedsheets in the night. He was wrong to hurl himself against a window. He was wrong to try to slash his wrist with a dinner fork. Altogether he was wrong about so many things that she never failed to visit him. She had to tell him how, when she still had time, how wrong he'd been and how right she'd been...she had to tell him all of this, every single day. Even if he wouldn't listen, she had to tell him.
-- Jonathan Franzen, The Corrections
On Monday, the NCAA and Big Ten put the Penn State football program in assisted living. The NCAA imposed crippling scholarship restrictions, limiting the Nittany Lions to 15 scholarship signees per season for the next four years and a maximum of 65 scholarship players overall. That alone effectively relegates Penn State to FCS status (the lower division plays under this same restriction), not that it will matter much: A four-year postseason ban is going to make recruiting to PSU in the next two years practically impossible. The financial ramifications -- $60M in fines payable over five years, plus a four-year forfeiture of Big Ten bowl revenues estimated at an additional $12-13M -- aren't as significant, though they come with a lot of zeroes attached. All Penn State football players are free to transfer to the school of their choice without waiting a year; the receiving team would even be allowed to use a future scholarship spot to bring the player aboard an already-full squad. PSU will also go on five years probation, with an NCAA compliance monitor in Happy Valley throughout. To add pure insult to unimaginable injury, the NCAA vacated every Penn State football win from 1998 -- when the Freeh Report indicated the PSU administration learned of Jerry Sandusky's horrendous acts -- to present, dropping Joe Paterno below Bobby Bowden and many others on the list of winningest coaches. An NCAA compliance officer will oversee PSU's compliance with the sanctions, the NCAA rules of ethics, and basic human decency.
If reports are to be believed, the vaunted NCAA "Death Penalty" was on the table*, though it would not have been the only punishment administered. Penn State consented to the punishment actually administered here, though, and the NCAA and Big Ten agreed to the plea. The fact is, none of those three institutions wanted the Death Penalty for Penn State. The PSU administration wanted to continue playing (and making money from) football, even if it means significant reductions in sports revenue and complete disaster on the field. The Big Ten didn't want a school that doesn't play sports**. And the NCAA wanted to be that elderly wife from the passage above. It didn't want Penn State to die, because it has been irreparably harmed by Penn State's wrongs and wanted it alive so that the NCAA could tell it how wrong it was. Every day. For the rest of its life.
The NCAA itself is built on a myth: The concept of multi-million-dollar-generating "amateur" athletics as ancillary to the academic mission of the university. This myth, in and of itself, is absurd, and made more absurd with every television contract or ticket price hike or argument between your conference and your cable company. It is built, though, on an ancient rationale: That, through athletics, the NCAA provides opportunity for education and personal development to student athletes greater than that of average students. Those who reject the myth of college athletics as noble undertaking, who play the game for what it really is***, are cast as lesser men by those who see fit to judge. The counterweight to these coaches was supposed to be Joe Paterno, a man of principle, a man who got it. Paterno was loyal to his team and his program, contributed to his school, espoused the virtues of education and leadership and the somewhat absurd process of boys becoming men through amateur football, and was the sport's all-time winningest coach despite it. For every coach who won "the wrong way" -- by cutting corners or funneling money to players or graduating nobody -- the NCAA had its answer: Paterno, unassailable, unimpeachable, the very picture of NCAA sports. If the myth needed protection, Paterno was its Swiss Guard.
When Paterno was exposed, then, when an investigation admittedly more comprehensive than anything the NCAA had ever done showed that Paterno had not only done everything in his power to defend his program and himself from inhuman acts by one of its, and his, own, against the very boys he was supposed to be molding into men, the NCAA's entire myth was laid bare. Nobody involved in this, not even The Great Man Himself, really had altruistic intentions. No football program, not even "Success With Honor" Penn State, was playing for the betterment of mankind. Nobody was playing football for the sake of football. They were all covering their own asses while the gravy train kept delivering the money. And the money did, and will, keep piling in. The mere fact that Penn State can afford to lose $73M in revenue over the course of the next five years and still operate every one of its athletic programs (except for football) at full strength tells us all we need to know about how far from amateurism we are.
The NCAA was made to feel wrong by Paterno's actions, and now it was time for Paterno and Penn State**** to be told how wrong they were, how wrong they had made the NCAA. Penn State couldn't be killed and couldn't be allowed to kill itself, in part because Penn State is a powerful part of a powerful conference but mostly because that would be too easy. Penn State had to be bedridden, left to sit there so that the NCAA can tell it how wrong it was about everything, every day, until death is a preferable fate. Penn State was wrong to cover up Sandusky's horrible acts. Penn State was wrong to let Sandusky continue to molest and rape boys. Penn State was wrong for keeping everyone involved in positions of power. Penn State was wrong for letting the NCAA and the Big Ten continue to hold up Joe Paterno as the standard of excellence. Penn State was wrong for letting the Big Ten put Paterno's name on everything. Penn State was wrong for letting Paterno get the wins record. Penn State was wrong for trying to set itself on fire. And, in the most overlooked part of the penalties from yesterday, the NCAA has told Penn State it will be there every day for the next five years to tell PSU just how wrong it was.
That doesn't make the NCAA right, though, because it's not. The myth of Paterno may have been exposed, but the myth of professional amateurism still lives on. The NCAA trusted the Paterno mythology without verification; it expects us to continue to buy its own. The NCAA tells you the problem was Penn State, when, in actuality, the problem is this entire system. The problem is a system where everyone is corrupted, whether by gobs of money or illusions of power or thoughts of legacy or pure, unadulterated ego. Joe Paterno was the head football coach at Penn State from 1966 through 2011, yet the NCAA only vacated his wins from 1998 on. Paterno had been an honorable man to that point, but when the point came -- when he and his legacy and his multi-million dollar program were put at risk like never before -- that honor was thrown out the door, along with the lives of the victims. What changed in those thirty-two years was money and power and legacy and importance. Penn State grew from cow college to legitimate research institution on the back of that football program. Paterno himself moved from lowly football coach to near-sainthood, and by 1998 clearly had more power and control over the university as a whole than its president. Penn State was a university athletics culture turned upside down: There was a football program to protect, and, in the most glaring example of the NCAA's mythology being laid bare, protecting that program was synonymous with protecting the academics, protecting the real mechanism for sculpting these boys into men, protecting the entire university from ruin. Without Penn State football -- an intercollegiate recreation activity, if you go back to the origins of the NCAA myth -- Penn State would be no more.
Is it that different anywhere else, though? If you removed athletics -- particularly football -- from Oklahoma or Texas A&M or Alabama or Nebraska or Ohio State, would they be the same academic institutions they are today? What about Iowa, or Wisconsin, or Michigan State? Does Iowa pay any of its professors, or its deans, or its president, ten percent of what it pays its football coach? Does any school playing competitive football? Football, with its modest goal of education through amateur athletics, is now more important than the education itself at the vast majority of Division I-A schools. It is more than the face of the university. It is the university, and it creates gross incentives for precisely the behavior that Joe Paterno now exemplifies. The NCAA's reason for existence -- to govern those ancillary sports programs -- now makes it the arbiter of whether an entire institution lives or dies.
The NCAA let Penn State live and will spend the next five years telling it how wrong it is while Penn State openly contemplates ending it. But hidden here is that the NCAA and college football remain wrong, as well. The correction came for Penn State. I fear it's on the way for everyone else.
1 -- On Monday night's podcast, Chris indicated that the NCAA offered the Death Penalty as an option, but Penn State resisted and threatened a potential lawsuit. I have a difficult time believing it was really on the table. Football pays the bills for all the other programs, and as Emmert indicated yesterday, the NCAA had no intention of letting PSU use this as an excuse to cut programs or athletic scholarships. The Death Penalty, in the day and age of 12-team conferences and giant television contracts and cross-country travel, kills the entire athletic department.
2 -- It already has the University of Chicago, which gets by because it's the University of Chicago.
3 -- see Bob Huggins and Barry Switzer
4 -- The big argument Monday was that the sanctions didn't punish anyone who had actually been involved with the scandal, since everyone who was involved with it has long since been fired and is either incarcerated, charged, or dead. This misses the point: For all intents and purposes, the institution and the football team are Paterno, and he they. If Paterno's program was going to continue to recruit on the legacy that Paterno built, if Penn State was still going to be Linebacker U, if They Are (still) Penn State, then that legacy must be destroyed. Yesterday's actions did just that. The NCAA went out of its way to give everyone currently involved in the program a way out by allowing free transfers, but the program had to be brought low, and if players decide to stay after given a free chance to leave, they'll have to deal with the consequences.