Some people, in particular some overheated talking heads, have contended that what should happen next at Penn State is the death penalty for the Nittany Lions — an NCAA-mandated shutdown of the football program for two years, as happened at SMU back in the late 1980s.
Can we all take a deep breath first?
This isn’t in any way to minimize the alleged atrocities of child sexual abuse committed by former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, or what appears to have been a cover-up by multiple staff members there. The story is alarming, it’s outrageous, it’s almost surreal.
But to expect the NCAA to step in and shut down the program is a reach on so many levels.
First, there’s no mechanism for the NCAA to do anything about this. It doesn’t enforce laws, it can only enforce the rules established by its membership. There’s nothing in the NCAA by-laws that speaks to its members following the strictures of society. We have law-enforcement officers — not NCAA investigators — to do that.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said Thursday the organization would look at the Penn State case after the legal process has run its course, but only to determine whether the association’s rules may have been broken in some way.
Somebody broached the lack of “institutional control” at Penn State. But a lot of schools have exhibited the same lack of institutional control in periods of law-breaking off the field. That simply isn’t covered by the NCAA. Institutional control refers only to checks in place to monitor whether NCAA rules are being followed.
If that seems antediluvian, consider this in the context of NCAA-as-criminal-judge: What should happen to a school employing a coach, for instance, who kills somebody while driving drunk? Or how would you properly sanction the myriad lesser offenses that we read about almost daily — DUIs, assaults, etc.? It simply isn’t possible — nor advisable.
NCAA enforcement is a convenient — and sometimes deserved — whipping boy for some of the ills involving college sports. But to expect the governing body of college sports to send down a guilty verdict in a criminal case is a stretch of serious proportions.
Early in the week, USA Today characterized the Penn State mess as the latest in a series of college embarrassments, including the Cam Newton saga, the Ohio State gear-for-tattoos scandal and the University of Miami allegations.
This one is of enormous proportions, yet to categorize it as a collegiate failure seems somehow to miss the mark. Those other breaches were affronts to the NCAA rules. This was a failure of humanity, a crisis of conscience that could have happened in a corporation or a high school or a church setting. The fact it occurred on a college campus is incidental to the bigger picture.
Maybe that makes it worse than all the others. But I’d contend, at the very least, it makes it different.