Photo via NCAA.org
Photo via NCAA.org
Throughout the Penn State child abuse scandal, my colleague David Roth has emphasized one point: that this is not a football issue, but a sociocultural clusterfuck tying together the worst psychological syndromes, an institution with wildly skewed priorities, and a broader sports culture intent on self-preservation whenever the moment calls for self-reflection. It’s an awful situation filled with practical contradictions, and in most cases the response has been to create binaries of good and evil or retreat into the familiar buzzwords of the college football establishment.
One thing pretty much no one has known how to do, really, is move on in a constructive yet punitive manner. On Monday, we were at least given something concrete to discuss in that area when NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the “unprecedented” penalties levied upon Penn State. They are very harsh: even the most loaded programs don’t easily bounce back from one year of postseason restrictions, let alone four; the same goes for four years of reduced scholarships; and a $60 million fine is pretty obviously significant. What’s less clear is exactly what this kind of harshness accomplishes, and whether or not Penn State, its athletic department, and the entire world of big-time college sports will become more functional because of it.
In the wake of the penalties, many wondered if the NCAA even had the authority to punish for not strictly football-oriented behavior. That’s a misguided question, though, because the NCAA’s power holds no official governmental stamp of approval—it exists only because its member schools consent to this particular lie agreed upon in the name of a stronger bargaining position and the profits that come with it. As Spencer Hall and Drew Magary both argued in separate pieces, the NCAA effectively lambasted Penn State to protect its claims that it exists for deep moral principles like helping student-athletes and maintaining the pure amateur spirit of sport. That much is clear in Emmert’s statement that “[f]ootball will never be put ahead of educating, protecting, and nurturing young people." This argument is particularly acrid bullshit—the NCAA is run like a professional league that just happens not to pay its players—but it’s also necessary to keep the illusion alive. Emmert and the NCAA will continue to police their schools more aggressively than at any other time in the organization’s history. It is unfortunately likely that those restrictions will have no effect on the NCAA’s main problem: that it breeds cultures in which keeping football and basketball programs alive and thriving becomes more important than preparing young people—athletes or otherwise—for the world.
There is no denying that the circumstances at Penn State were extraordinary, and that everyone from Jerry Sandusky to Joe Paterno to Graham Spanier (curiously unnamed in the NCAA’s punishment) did something absolutely terrible that others in similar positions at other schools would not have done. But moral actions often depend on their contexts, and the football culture at Penn State wasn’t quite so different from that of its rivals. While it’s hard to imagine a uniquely heinous scandal like this one occurring anywhere else, it’s also true that the same program-preserving tendencies that cause coaches to look past less morally bankrupt violations like paying players also makes people wander into the extralegal muck in which Spanier and others find themselves today. It takes a special brand of asshole to look past child abuse, but the importance of a football program cannot be overstated when all activities at a university depend on the team’s continued success. Penn State’s undoing took place over many years—it’s not normal for a large state university to name its library after a football coach (no matter how much money he gave to build it), or to build a statue of that same man while he still holds the job for which he’s being honored. That’s the kind of treatment that breeds sanctification when in reality the man is at least as fallible as any other octogenarian. If the alumni and students of Penn State have often seemed to lack perspective during the past few months—and they have, over and over again—then we can also explain away some of those actions by the fact that they were conditioned to hold those opinions to be self-evident over the course of several decades.
There are more shades of gray to this debacle than we often care to admit. The moral failures at Penn State were indicative of issues that plague most every football powerhouse in the country: loyalty to the welfare of the program over that of the athletes for whom it supposedly exists, a misguided relationship between academics and athletics, a willingness to lie about the goals of amateur sports, etc. We can argue over the exact form of the NCAA’s penalties, but a truly serious reaction would have created wide-ranging changes that affected the entire institution of college sports rather than just one high-profile member. Real reform would involve overhauling the entire NCAA, but that will only ever happen with federal intervention.
Yet, even if the Penn State sanctions arise from ulterior motives, they can still have a positive effect on the school as a whole. In the short term, that cannot happen: it’s hard to exaggerate the degree to which the football program propped up the rest of the school. It kept other sports teams afloat, which allowed the school to join the Big Ten, which itself necessitated academic improvements to meet new benchmarks set by Wisconsin and Northwestern, which led to even more prosperity. Football created a lot of good, surely, and the fact that all progress was part of an increasingly grimy bubble doesn’t mean that bursting it won’t have immediate repercussions. (That’s to say nothing of the social losses—in addition to helping the school at large, football was responsible for a great deal of the college’s character and social life.) Everything is going to change; the NCAA has ensured that the Penn State football team will be considerably worse for at least a decade and possibly longer. The school will have to find new ways to become great, which will be very difficult but, if they’re successful, ultimately create something more lasting. An institution dependent on one moneymaker naturally becomes in thrall of that figure, which is pretty much the definition of a dysfunctional relationship. (This is not only the case with sports — Stanford, my alma mater and the poster child for striking the proper balance between academics and athletics, has aligned itself with corporations in disturbing ways.) There’s a lot of work to be done in State College, but it’s not terribly off-base to claim that all of it is necessary to create a better community. The NCAA penalties could hasten those changes, and that’s a positive even if the consequence was unintentional.
The trickier issue here concerns exactly how the university goes about recalibrating its priorities in this specific climate. Penn State cannot operate in anonymity, and the football program will continue to attract large amounts of media scrutiny even if (or maybe especially if) they are terrible next season. As is usually the case in our sports media culture, the smallest bits of news will be blown up to epic proportions. Penn State needs to minimize the importance of football on campus, but the outside world will discuss the football program with a level of attention usually reserved for title contenders. No amount of institutional oversight can change that; it’s what the vast majority of the public wants to hear about for the foreseeable future.
College football is wired this way: in times of great moral crisis, producers and pundits fall back on what they know. That’s why, in the wake of Monday’s announcement, most commentary focused not on the justness of the penalties and their likely effects on Penn State as a school, but if and when Penn State could be a good football team again. Even before punishment became a tangible consideration, when new coach Bill O’Brien was hired in January, his job was spoken of in terms of restoring the program’s honor rather than winning football games with diminished resources. These are the conditions that foster institutional neglect in the first place—football is spoken of as an end in itself, and coaches are moral leaders and not high-paid employees in a results-oriented business.
This noise will eventually die down. At that point, after a few seasons on the wrong side of blowouts, perhaps the school will be able to remake itself in a more reasonable image. But it’s worth considering the weight of being watched so closely for months, and the degree to which we have been conditioned to approach anything related to college football with such a narrow scope. Whether or not Penn State received fair punishment, the NCAA’s verdict has given the school a potential path to constructing a new identity. And while that accomplishment might not change the way all of college football does business, a single success story is still worth hoping for.