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The NCAA Made the Right Choice in Punishing Penn State

Among the many responses to today's announcement that the NCAA is effectively going to send Penn St. into the wilderness for, at least, the next ten to fifteen years, you've probably read this one by Spencer Hall. With all due respect to this excellent writer, whose bona fides in the world of college sports blogging far exceed my own, I'm surprised at the hostile, cynical response to these penalties that we're seeing from this and others corners of the media. Certainly, the NCAA is far from a beacon of righteousness. Its inconsistent decisions have never been a good yardstick for justice and fairness. I'm something of a cynic myself, and I'm inclined to be skeptical of those who grandstand in the name of moral righteousness. Still, in this case, the NCAA more or less got it right; at the very least, it did what it had to do in an unfortunate situation.

There are a few arguments you'll see for why the NCAA shouldn't have punished PSU. The first, and most common, is that what happened at PSU isn't under the purview of the NCAA's regulations. Those regulations, this argument goes, pertain to prohibiting programs from unfairly gaining a competitive advantage, which typically occurs either through payment of players or through academic fraud. While the PSU affair doesn't directly relate to such phenomena, and while the NCAA admittedly took unconventional measures in this case, this is certainly a case of an unfairly gained competitive advantage in all of this. It may be the worst such case ever. Needless to say, PSU football would have been a lot different the past fifteen years had this come out sooner. As the Freeh Report suggests, the coverup happened to protect the program from bad publicity. Bad publicity is principally bad, you guessed it, because it kills recruiting, fundraising, the ability to hire and retain good coaches, etc. I'm not a lawyer, and I know I'm probably playing fast and loose with precedent and category here. But sometimes common sense trumps precision of interpretation. If an athletics department failing to monitor boosters paying players deserves punishment, surely it also warrants punishment when high-ranking members of an athletics department perjure themselves in order to protect and enable a child rapist just in order to save themselves from bad publicity.

Let's not forget the ultimate purpose of punitive measures here. These kinds of punishments are intended to teach rogue institutions to follow the rules, and to dissuade other institutions from following in their footsteps. What happens if the NCAA doesn't act to punish a member institution that has exhibited such gross evidence of corruption? How will it be able to consistently demand adherence to its rules ever again?

Keep reading after the jump.

Another argument I've seen quite a bit of is that taking wins away from Paterno is an ineffective, even insidious gesture. Hall called this "stabbing a corpse." Andy Hutchins, for his part, has an excellent post up on this topic, in which he writes:

You know what making Paterno de jure not the winningest coach in college football history does? It means that when the NCAA talks about the winningest coach in college football history, it doesn't have to explain how a coach who, at a minimum, failed to adequately guard against a serial sexual predator in his team's midst, still managed to win more football games than anyone else, ever. The NCAA is trying to write off 40 years of being complicit in making Paterno seem like the paragon of collegiate athletics with a wave of the hand that attempts to erase facts.

I find this partially compelling, but part of me wants to say that this is more an unfortunate side-effect of the NCAA doing something it simply had to do, as opposed to the primary intent of the sanctions. For one thing, unfairly earned wins have always been stricken from the record books, so the NCAA is, surprise, surprise, following precedent here. And who really believes that Paterno deserves credit for those wins, other than the Paterno family and the particularly rabid elements of the PSU fanbase? He gained an unfair advantage at the cost of maintaining his humanity. I can't think of anything more deserving of having wins taken away, particularly and not in spite of there being a record on the line here. I'm glad that Eddie Robinson and Bobby Bowden will now enjoy their proper place in the records books, although I find myself thinking, after reading Hutchins's article, that it's important for the NCAA to keep the memory of what happened here alive, both to remind us of the dangers of unbridled power and so that it can't escape its own role in the situation.

There are other objections to the measures. I'm somewhat inclined to agree that it's unfair to punish current players and coaches for something their predecessors did, but at the same time, limiting scholarship numbers and imposing bowl bans isn't only hurting the guys on the field. It's also hitting the institution where it hurts, in the wins-losses column and on the bottom line, and in that sense, it's a good deterrent. This is about humbling PSU so that this doesn't happen again. Some players will suffer, but the NCAA is giving players the opportunity to transfer without restrictions. Some understandably won't want to do that, and I feel for those guys.

But I'm not really sure what else could have been done. Like I said, I sympathize with Hall's cynicism, and once we recognize that it was right for the NCAA to impose sanctions on PSU, it's worth questioning how the NCAA positions itself from here on out. I don't trust the NCAA, either. This remains far from a perfect situation, but really, the only perfect solution here would be to go back in time and stop Sandusky before any of this happened. Absent that possibility, the NCAA did what it could with the circumstances. In conclusion, I think Year 2 gets it right here when he addresses some of the criticisms (his column makes many other fine points, as well):

Ultimately, the gravity of the situation—that several levels of leaders at a university systematically covered up the actions of a now-convicted predatory pedophile that they allowed to roam the premises for 13 years in order to preserve the image of the football program—overwhelms all of it. Unless the Freeh Report is somehow wildly inaccurate, and risk for the NCAA over that is blunted by PSU's official acceptance of the facts and penalties here, this is the right move. If hammers don't get dropped over something like this by anyone who might have jurisdiction, it sends a far worse message than the alternative.

Well said.