Penn State got off easy

Penn State students react to the announcement of NCAA sanctions against the football program on Monday in State College. GENE J. PUSKAR / Associated Press
Penn State students react to the announcement of NCAA sanctions against the football program on Monday in State College. GENE J. PUSKAR / Associated Press
Posted: July 26, 2012

Those in the know at Penn State are likely relieved that the university escaped the "death penalty" the NCAA could and should have imposed on its football program for a cover-up of sexual abuse of children.

A mere year of football revenue will cover the $60 million fine the NCAA ordered Penn State to pay for child abuse prevention. And the erasure of the school's football victories since 1998 mainly affects the legacy of its already dismissed, discredited, disowned, and deceased former head coach, Joe Paterno.

Penn State officials willingly embraced these penalties and others — including temporary ineligibility for bowl games and a loss of football scholarships — because they know a good deal when they see one. The football program will endure a period of rebuilding, as all programs must periodically, with the hope and expectation of soon reemerging as the dominant cultural force in Happy Valley.

The NCAA loves to slap around non-revenue-generating members for technical rule violations, as the California Institute of Technology learned earlier this month. But with a few exceptions, top-tier programs are treated differently. Ohio State suffered a year of bowl ineligibility and a temporary loss of some scholarships for impermissible benefits to players. And now Penn State has been allowed to negotiate its own penalties for, as the Freeh report put it, having "failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children" sexually assaulted by an assistant coach.

Perhaps it was too much of a hassle for the NCAA to impose the death penalty on Penn State, which could have objected and demanded due process. More important, suspending Penn State football would have meant significant revenue losses for other NCAA member schools forced to forfeit scheduled games. We certainly couldn't have that!

Some have worried about all the innocent adults who would be harmed if Penn State got the death penalty. But among the students, alumni, faculty, and merchants who promoted and profited from the football culture that nurtured and protected a predator who preyed on children, there are no innocent adults — only enablers.

Both Penn State and the NCAA are promoting the notion that the penalties announced this week are somehow worse than the death penalty. "Could everyone please move along?" they seem to be saying. "Nothing more to see here."

Shockingly, though, these sanctions allow Penn State to play this season according to its regular schedule. Football will continue as before, almost as if nothing had happened.

The same can't be said for the lives of the sexual-abuse victims whom university officials chose to ignore.

Jan C. Ting is a professor of law at Temple University's Beasley School of Law. He can be reached at janting@temple.edu.

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