In issuing the NCAA’s unprecedented fines and other penalties against Penn State University on Monday, NCAA president Mark Emmert spelled out clearly the message being sent to the school – and to other universities: “Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people,” he said.
It’s a shame those words had to be uttered. More shameful is the horrific events that led to them. Penn State turned a blind eye to a serial rapist for more than a decade, allowing him to sexually abuse at least 10 young boys while he was employed by Penn State or had access to its facilities. That man, former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, was convicted in June on 45 counts of molesting children.
The swiftness of the NCAA action commendably stands in stark contrast to long years of inaction by Penn State leaders. A 267-page report, released July 12, indicts the culture surrounding the storied football program, and the failings of the school’s leaders – particularly its former president Graham Spanier and revered coach, Joe Paterno, who died this year.
Former FBI director Louis Freeh, who prepared the report, was blunt in his assessment: “Our most saddening finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State,” he said. “[They] failed to take any steps to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.”
On Sunday, the bronze statue of Paterno at the school’s football stadium was removed. New Penn State President Rodney Erickson rightly ordered it taken down, saying it had “become a source of division and an obstacle to healing.” And given Paterno’s role in the scandal, as laid out by Freeh, the statue had become an inappropriate homage despite Paterno’s contributions to the school.
It was that role that Emmert pointed to, as well as the ethical and legal lapses that emanated from the football program’s dominating influence at the school. In announcing that Penn State will be banned from the postseason for four years, he said the school “can focus on rebuilding its athletic culture, not worrying about whether it’s going to a bowl game.” The school also will lose football scholarships and must pay $60 million in fines, which will go toward a child abuse victims fund. And all of Penn State’s victories from 1998 through 2011 will be vacated.
Some who urged the NCAA to shut down the Penn State football program say the punishment isn’t enough. But NCAA rules shut down a program only for teams that commit an NCAA violation while already being sanctioned. Penn State did not fit those criteria.
By contrast, others say the NCAA is overstepping its bounds with any punishment because they say Penn State’s violations were criminal and civil and not athletic. We think Emmert has it right. This egregious situation is about athletics and more. The NCAA looked at a lack of “institutional control” within the athletic department as well as violations of ethics rules by “deceitful and dishonest behavior.” The Freeh report also pointed to a lack of oversight of compliance issues as required by the NCAA.
Still, no punishment will restore what has been lost by the young men who were victimized by Sandusky. Such victimization was enabled by a lack of leadership at Penn State and a football program that was worshipped and revered at the expense of their welfare. Penn State’s football program isn’t alone in having a culture that is inappropriately deferential to athletics. The NCAA’s action is an apt warning that others should heed.