Mike Kern: No easy answers when it comes to punishing Penn State

The sign for "Paternoville" where students would camp out to buy football tickets outside Beaver Stadium has been taken off its mount and will be replaced with a sign that says "Nittanyville". Will Penn State try to erase any trace of Paterno from the campus ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
The sign for "Paternoville" where students would camp out to buy football tickets outside Beaver Stadium has been taken off its mount and will be replaced with a sign that says "Nittanyville". Will Penn State try to erase any trace of Paterno from the campus ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )
Posted: July 19, 2012

LIKE MOST ANYONE else with an opinion, my crystal ball doesn't have the vaguest notion what will happen with Penn State football, at least as it pertains to the NCAA and the powers that be. Because, no matter how disgusted this whole Jerry Sandusky scandal has made us, we don't have all the answers. And we might never get them. Some of the ones we might eventually be left with could still take a lot more time to come out. Even then, not everyone will agree about what constitutes the truth, no matter how apparent it can seem to many. Joe Paterno's family, not unexpectedly, is already disputing the conclusions of the Freeh report. So it's highly doubtful there ever will be a consensus one way or the other. It obviously doesn't help that Paterno is no longer around to tell his story. So we deal with whatever evidence makes itself available.

Where that leaves the NCAA is hard to assess, because this is unprecedented territory. Its president has left the door open for possible sanctions. He wouldn't even rule out the death penalty, something that's been used only once before in football, against Southern Methodist a quarter-century ago for repeated violations involving improper benefits. But Penn State represents another solar system. Forget cheating. This is about moral issues and breakdowns in the chain of command. And it's an emotional powder keg, for all the obvious reasons. Too many young lives were ruined, perhaps forever. Penn State has never been cited for anything before. We know now that this situation was handled horribly wrong. What we're not totally sure of are the absolute hows and whys and whens of who was responsible for allowing it to happen.

So, beyond the loss of the perception that Penn State was doing things the right way, what exactly should the proper punishment be? Or should there be any official moves taken?

There simply aren't easy answers, no matter how badly we want to see some kind of closure beyond seeing Sandusky suffer for as long as he continues to breathe.

Some think the program should go away for a year or so, just because. And maybe that is the "solution." I'm just not inclined to go that far. At least not at the moment. And I'm not sure the NCAA is, either. I don't know what's going to come out of the legal system. And it could take a while to reach those conclusions. Maybe school officials will be found guilty of criminal misconduct. But we don't know how that's going to proceed yet. And until we do, how does the NCAA formulate its stance, much less proceed forward based upon that? No rules appear to have been broken, as far as we know. But there definitely seem to be grounds for infractions when it comes to the principles of institutional control. The only certainty is that attorneys will ultimately emerge as the biggest winners.

People want justice. They want to see Penn State suffer. I get that. But the process has to play out. When emotions are so much a part of the equation, the natural reaction calls for a swift judgment. And a punitive resolution. But the NCAA might not look so righteous if it imposes something, only to find out that the parties facing possible charges were for any reasons logical or otherwise not found guilty. It's happened before.xx

Penn State has already been tried and convicted in the court of most public opinion. That will never change. As with anything else, if there are penalties handed down, it'll create more innocent victims who had nothing to do with this. Maybe that shouldn't be the NCAA's concern. Or anyone's. Maybe the university deserves to be dealt with harshly, to ensure that something so egregious can never take place again. Penn State will always have to deal with the embarrassment. Perhaps that's enough. Or maybe the institution will do the smart/right thing and penalize itself first. Change the environment and mind-set that enabled this to occur. The hierarchy of the university and the football program already has changed, something that has always been a mitigating factor when it comes to NCAA penalties. Former president Graham Spanier remains a university professor, so maybe more changes would not be such a bad thing. But imposing a death sentence? If I'm a juror, I'm just not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that it's warranted. I think it'll take a lot to convince the NCAA otherwise. As it should, because it's the kind of step there's no retreating from. So before anyone does, you have to make sure it's the only befitting action.

For the time being, there are other ways the NCAA can make a firm point and still extract a healthy degree of justness. That might not be enough for everyone, but it could be what's most appropriate. n

Contact Mike Kern at kernm@phillynews.com.

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