When former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno died in January, all any of us knew for sure was the issue of how Paterno would be remembered was subject to updating.
Wow. I was right in saying that, while underestimating the outcome of further investigations, criminal proceedings and everything else that’s happened over the past six months.
The ultimate update came Monday, when the NCAA responded to the long-ago failings of Paterno and other administrators to stop child sex abuser Jerry Sandusky by punishing Penn State with a four-year postseason ban, the loss of scholarships and a $60 million fine.
My initial reaction: The punishment is too harsh, affecting too many innocent football players.
Second thought: They’re not the only innocent victims of this story. And that’s what everybody needs to remember. Maybe the sanctions cannot help those victims directly, but they can support programs and create awareness to keep anything like this from happening again, anywhere.
NCAA president Mark Emmert’s strong stand was the right thing to do. He took unprecedented action in a case unlike anything college football has experienced. While stopping short of canceling a season, the penalties are crippling to Penn State. Bill O’Brien never could have pictured any of this when he became the Nittany Lions coach.
But who could have imagined any part of what occurred on Penn State’s campus?
The problem with this case, and the NCAA’s enforcement of college athletics overall, is it’s not always possible to penalize the responsible people. Taking away victories from Paterno’s record is not going to accomplish anything. The best any of us can hope from Penn State’s example is that lessons are learned on other campuses.
The most sobering aspect of all this is a lot of us are complicit here, in a sense. Fans and the media have enabled this kind of culture to exist on campuses, creating an environment where someone such as Joe Paterno could become larger than life and the well-being of a football program could transcend real-life issues.
NCAA punishment typically comes in response to a program gaining a competitive advantage, and this is different. Or is it? If the crimes of Sandusky, Penn State’s defensive coordinator through 1998, had been reported and he had been convicted then, the fallout for Paterno’s program would have been considerable.
Instead, Paterno and others tried to protect Sandusky and the program, which served only to defer the negative effects beyond Paterno’s lifetime.
Emmert’s action includes the creative solution of targeting $60 million to support programs that prevent child abuse. That’s a healthy outcome to a horrible situation. As for the players, if they really want to play for Penn State under any circumstances, they can stay. If not, they can transfer without penalty.
That’s not what any of them signed up for, of course, and the same is true of O’Brien and his staff members. That part is unfortunate. Yet O’Brien partly knew what he was getting into. This just increases the degree of difficulty, while also giving him basically all the time he needs to rebuild the program.
As much as the removed statue of Paterno, O’Brien now becomes the symbol of how a football coach truly should be regarded — as not bigger than the school itself. That’s the message from Emmert, who said the Penn State case should make every school "take an honest look at its campus environment and eradicate the ‘sports are king’ mind-set that can so dramatically cloud the judgment of educators."
That happened at Penn State, and it clearly affects Paterno’s legacy now. He goes from being revered as "the conscience of college football" to being forever associated with "unconscionable" acts, according to Emmert. That’s the update, as shocking as this entire story has become.
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