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Penn State Football's Sanctions: Death Would Have Been A Kindness

Joe Knows Disgrace.
Joe Knows Disgrace.

The swift, harsh sanctions imposed by the NCAA, operating largely from the findings of Penn State's own internal investigation, effectively end competitive Nittany Lion football for the rest of the decade and formally erase the Paterno legacy as the NCAA's all-time winningest coach. Paterno now finds himself behind someone called Tubby Raymond - and somewhere there are Bowdens doing a quiet fist pump.

I have mixed emotions on the severity of the penalty - particularly some of its prospective elements - and as I reason through the implications, it's clear to me that the death penalty would have been far more kind - but when every level of your school administration harbors, and through its inaction - abets - a known pedophile in order to serve the legacy of a Paterno personality cult that had grown indistinguishable from the football program and university itself; while continuing to allow a predator to use the program to awe and groom more victims for years after his offenses were known, it's hard to muster much sympathy for the culture of an institution that profoundly off-the-rails.

Even when it's the NCAA - as buffoonish an institution as you'll find - doing the kicking.

Oddly, many Penn State fans, and much of the media, still don't quite get it. This couldn't have happened just anywhere; Penn State was peculiarly qualified for it to happen there.

If this punishment was meant to treat Happy Valley like the Romans treated Carthage, delenda est. If it was meant to instruct, couching the horror of these crimes in football terms diminishes them. So we're left with a general sense of righteous vengeance, the cologne of the knee-jerk. Sometimes, it smells okay.

Let's go through the sanctions:

The Laudable

$60 million fine, to go to an endowment for children's charities

Sixty million dollars represents a year of Penn State football revenues. This is an appropriate, even useful, punishment. I hope the money is given to effective and efficient child advocacy groups known for getting money into actual programs and to the kids themselves, instead of a bloated, inefficient non-profit running bullshit "awareness campaigns" and paying 50 cents on every dollar to board salaries and charity galas.

The Eye Rolls

Vacation of all wins from 1998 through 2011 (meaning Joe Paterno now ranks seventh among all D1 coaches in wins)

If we really want to follow some logical process here, an argument could be advanced that the vacating of wins should begin in 2001, when circumstantial evidence overwhelmingly suggests that Paterno began a methodical (i.e. institutional) cover-up after receiving an eyewitness report of rape from a trusted assistant, confirming the 1998 allegations, of which, incidentally, Sandusky was cleared of wrongdoing, despite his aberrant, apologetic expressions to the victim's mother.

Five years probation

The jury sentences the murderer to death by lethal injection. In addition, a $200 fine for jaywalking. You're cute, NCAA.

Worse Than The Death Penalty

In aggregate, that is. The triple whammy of a four year postseason bowl ban, immediate transfer eligibility, and the scholarship reduction makes a clean death penalty substantially more preferable.

Four-year postseason ban

When you ban a program from a single year of postseason play, recruits don't much care and players within your program will stick around and endure the mild inconvenience. That juice isn't worth the transfer squeeze.

A brief postseason ban is a financial/prestige punishment. A four year post-season ban is a competitiveness punishment. It's a switchblade to the hamstring. Four years forces a player to question the essence of his college experience: no bowls, no conference championships, losing seasons, representing a reviled program. It actively prevents high level recruiting, and essentially forces transfer from players with any ambitions inside your program.

Penn State players can transfer immediately without penalty

That's the killer. Not only can players transfer and immediately have eligibility, but receiving schools won't have the transfer count against this year's 85 scholarship limit. They must honor that limit next year, but every coach in FBS knows how to make this work, particularly with respect to the 10-12 players who are Penn State's most coveted grabs. In addition, all permission-to-contact rules are now suspended. It's open season on recruiting Nittany Lions.

The big question now is - because of the immediacy of the season and Fall camp - can Penn State's football staff exploit team unity and false guilt to keep the team together? The timing is helpful to Penn State's cause - the initial shock may have players banding together briefly, while this penalty handed down in April would have left the locker room with tumbleweeds. All it requires is the departure of one or two of Penn State's best players to start a mass migration.

10 incoming scholarships lost first year, 20 scholarship deduction for four years (more or less an entire roster worth of scholarships)

I'm already reading and hearing USC comparisons and that there are Kiffinesque workarounds here.


The structure of the scholarship loss ( maximum of 15 scholarships offered per year, for the next 4 years) in combination with the transfers rule and the four year postseason bowl ban makes for a toxic combination that USC didn't have to negotiate. Kiffin was able to ditch non-contributing players, back load scholarships, and sell kids on an immediate return to prominence led by an elite QB and a sound infrastructure; in a state that churns out more FBS players than Texas and Florida, where it's the only local program that takes football seriously.

The secret beauty of a death penalty is that a program absorbs the hit in one devastating blow and is cleansed. Once you get past the blow, the slate is clean, you can sell high quality recruits on starting as a freshman (with a team that will be in bowls by the time they're juniors) and you can sell a very specific vision built around rebirth, early playing time, and being celebrated forever as the men who restored honor to Penn State football. To this day, Rick Pitino's Unforgettables are more beloved in Kentucky than any national title team.

No such dream exists here. There is no vision to sell. There is no immediate rebirth possible. Just misery. And starting next to walk-ons and freshmen. And 4-8 seasons with no bowls representing the most despised athletic program in the history of college sports.

Death would have been a kindness.