So, what is the death penalty?
It's the unofficial term for when the NCAA refuses to sanction a school's participation in a sport. There's no way for the NCAA to prevent a school from playing a sport -- the NCAA would need guns and jails to do that -- but it can tell the rest of its members not to schedule the blackballed team. The NFL could erase a team forever, but the NCAA can only shut a team out of the NCAA.
It's happened only five times ever. Skip this part if you're already familiar.
1952 Kentucky men's basketball: A joint SEC-NCAA investigation into Wildcats points-shaving revealed coach Adolph Rupp played 10 players whom he knew had been paid against the rules. The NCAA pieced together a death penalty from a couple of rulebook items, but didn't strip the 1951 national title the Cats won while all the shaving and paying was going on.
UK won the SEC in their first year back, needing all of five years to win the next of their eight national titles. The death penalty was evidently not that crushing of a sanction yet.
1973 and 1974 Southwestern Louisiana men's basketball: The soon-to-be Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin' Cajuns were busted for a potpourri of infractions, ranging from academic fraud to money for players to triple-digit recruiting violations over the previous several years. The finest detail:
An altered high school transcript to which the forged signature of a principal at Fairborn-Baker High School, Fairborn, Ohio, was affixed by the assistant basketball coach. The alterations on this transcript improved his high school grade point average to the level necessary for his minimum prediction at the University.
1987 and 1988 SMU football: The one everybody has heard of and cites when this sort of thing arises. While still on its latest round of probation (it was really more of a cycle of probation when it came to SMU), the Mustangs were caught paying players and lying about it. Not only was SMU forbidden to compete against NCAA teams for a year, it also lost 1988 thanks to being barred from playing home games and dealt with a player exodus, a financially disastrous bowl and TV ban through 1989, as well as heavy recruiting and staffing penalties.
One unexpected semi-result of all this? Partly because of overall diminished TV money and national exposure, Arkansas left the Southwest Conference for the SEC, and then four years later Texas and friends left for the Big 12. Proud SWC programs like TCU were left without a major conference anymore. Five coaches later, SMU has had only three winning seasons since.
Seeing all this, the NCAA pledged to wield the death penalty weapon with great care henceforth, as the collateral damage is extreme when it comes to football.
2003 Morehouse men's soccer: The Tigers recruited and played two former pros despite knowing they were likely ineligible, along with the usual other violations. It got really complicated.
2005 and 2006 MacMurray men's tennis: Division III schools by definition can't give players scholarships. MacMurray gave it a shot anyway, just to see what happens. Now we know!
You'll note very few of the above items have anything to do with serious crime, as in crimes with victims.
It's all about scholarships and recruiting and payments for players and academic forgery and boosters and such. NCAA stuff. No court stuff like rapes, murders, drug arrests, riots or embezzlement. Not even the Baylor case, in which coach Dave Bliss blamed player Carlton Dotson's murder of teammate Patrick Dennehy on Dennehy's alleged drug-dealer status, merited the NCAA death penalty, and that one even included the NCAA turning up drug use and recruiting violations to boot.
The NCAA has a wheelhouse, and criminal justice is not it. The NCAA has proved itself aware of this fact for decades now, at least when it comes to the death penalty. But if a large portion of the public were to have its way, that would change. You'll note it's the people who are least familiar with what the NCAA does who are calling for the NCAA to do something in the Penn State case. This is an organization that's recently put programs on probation and worse for T-shirts and sleeping arrangements, and it's fit to handle child rape?
The death penalty does not mean closing down a school's sport forever. It means forbidding it from competing at the NCAA level for one year. If you want to argue PSU should choose to suspend its own football program, as Florida A&M did with its own flagship program's scandal, please feel free, but to argue that someone else should step in is shortsighted.
But even killing Penn State football forever wouldn't punish Jerry Sandusky one bit beyond some twinge of jailhouse embarrassment. Joe Paterno wouldn't even know about it, let alone feel the repercussions. Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley have become lifelong State College pariahs and have no stake in what happens to the football program. The feds could punish the entire university, and the school itself is about to be sued for many millions of dollars, just to make good and sure.
So please name the specific people who still need to be punished for the Sandusky coverup, and please explain how killing football would be preferable for those people than jail time would. The Board of Trustees should've resigned by now? The Board of Trustees does not play football.
You could even insist the football program play the opposite of football (UCLA circa 2011), and it still wouldn't bring any justice to any victim of any crime committed by any of the specific men responsible.
We could blame the culture of Penn State. Football is power and livelihood and blood in State College. Football built the school. Joe Paterno bought the library. This means nothing here. Specific men broke specific criminal laws, thereby harming other specific people. You don't send a whole town to jail because one guy committed murder and four other guys covered it up. Blaming the culture of Penn State is like blaming something called "society" for Casey Anthony. I didn't do it.
The death penalty does not mean the NCAA would parachute into Happy Valley and tear down a statue with tanks, thereby loosing a region from the decades-long mind strangle of a hunched wizard in black Nikes. It does mean the NCAA would punish many, many people who did nothing wrong and are just as disgusted with Sandusky as you are, along with punishing people who've been hired to clean up the messes left by Sandusky's enablers.
Maybe some of us would get satisfaction in seeing some sort of comeuppance for those Penn State students who caroused and carried on the night Paterno was fired. If you want to see PSU forced to close its football program just to show some kids what's what, I'll trust you wouldn't have done anything silly while on national TV at 19 years old.
But the culture of Nittany Lions football has so infested the university and its town that it has to be lanced from the school (Wait, we aren't gonna shut down the whole school while we're at it? The university president was involved, after all), so this is all for your own good, State College. Closing down football would lead to immense crossfire casualties, including putting thousands out of business, but you'll thank us once this is all over.
Tertiary effects shouldn't be a reason to forego justice, but we should understand them either way. Killing football would also mean Penn State would be unable to afford many of its 29 other sports, thus harming athletes who didn't even play the bad sport to begin with. Multiple years without much besides men's basketball and whatever men's basketball could support could mean Penn State being replaced by Syracuse or Maryland or Virginia Tech in the Big Ten, thereby cutting ties with the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a $6 billion Big Ten research association that's helped make every conference school an academic heavyweight. Plus, as the SMU episode showed, the entire Big Ten, the Big Ten Network, the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten's other bowls, Rose Bowl partner the Pac-12, Big Ten partner ESPN and college football in general would suffer.
None of that's an excuse for evading justice, but again, no justice would be served upon any of the five responsible men by killing a sport. It would be a body count for the sake of a body count.
And what would be the appropriate death penalty length? SMU got a year(ish) for paying players. A dozen rape victims is like a million times worse than giving money to athletes, right? So like a million years? Even a decade would be insulting, based on death penalty precedent. Unless the NCAA has the fortitude to lay down a proportionate death penalty of a century or so (or something as ridiculous as an eternal suspension of Penn State football), it shouldn't even try it.
Also, please point out the unpaid Penn State student below who -- due to the acts of a bunch of powerful suits who are all now either dead, jailed, fired or facing trial -- would most deserve to be stripped of his scholarship* and forced to find a new one possibly far from home, most likely at a less distinguished university, and most likely at a program less likely to lead to a pro football career, thereby damaging his career potential both off the field and on. Just pick one young man you'd like to explain that to.
* Yes, some are already gone. You know what I mean.
Also, new coach Bill O'Brien, who could've coached in another Super Bowl or two while waiting on a NFL head coaching job to open up? Despite having never been in trouble and glad-handing Pennsylvania by bus and saying all the right things and doing an incredible job on the recruiting trail, he should be out of work as well thanks to acts committed by people he's never even worked for, some of whom he's never even met.
Enron is similar enough to Penn State to sound like an effective comparison, in that it was shut down even though 99 percent of its employees did nothing wrong. But Enron was not shut down by a non-governmental agency with no history of criminal justice. Enron went bankrupt due to its own scandal. The legal system and the market, not an outfit best-equipped to oversee basketball tournaments, took down Enron.
Last thought: If Penn State's ultimate crime is placing football above everything else, wouldn't the NCAA taking away football as a punishment for the VIP-enabled serial rape of at least a dozen children only appear to make football even bigger than it already is? How could being told not to play games ever be a punishment that squares with the rape of children? The only fitting punishment for rape and covering up rape is jail and jail-like things, not a silent Saturday.
If football's not more critical than the safety of children -- and it's not -- then it's also not critical enough to be used as a punishment tool when children are damaged on a powerful man's watch. Saturday is not that goddamn important.
If the NCAA were to intervene by barring Penn State football, it would be wading into the jurisdiction of actual government bodies, assigning blame and punishment to thousands of people who did nothing wrong, adding no new punishment to the men who actually did do something wrong, and perpetuating just how big a role football plays in the American life.
For more on Nittany Lions football, visit Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries, plus Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire, SB Nation Pittsburgh and SB Nation Philly.
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