As penalties go, it felt like a guillotine.
That was the idea.
Here is what the NCAA’s ruling does to Penn State. It costs it $60 million, plus mountains of scholarships and any bowls for the next four years. It wipes out every football victory since 1998. It officially shrinks Joe Paterno’s legacy and his place in college football’s record books.
It also lets the NCAA feel righteous about attacking a “sports is everything” mentality – even if that’s the same mentality it spends most of its time cultivating.
Here is what the ruling does not do.
It does not remove a single victim’s nightmare.
It does not give them back years of private anger, depression or embarrassed silence.
It does not aid those who pleaded for help while the horrors were happening.
And it does not give much thought to the thousands of football players who honestly and honorably busted their hides for the glory of old PSU – with no idea what Jerry Sandusky was doing – and who now, in the record books, never won a single game.
Nor does it make life easy for players currently on the team, partway through degrees, who have a choice of uprooting to another school or staying and playing for a shell of a program.
So it does not fix everything. But that’s because there are two trains running here, on two different tracks. The one labeled “college sports” just blew its horn loudly, but the one labeled “life’s tragedies” kept on going straight.
NCAA’s new brand of justice
“We needed to act,” Oregon State president Ed Ray, the chair of the NCAA’s executive committee, told reporters in Indianapolis announcing the punishment Monday, “and we needed to act quickly and effectively.”
Most people applaud that statement. The Penn State saga is so morally offensive that just speaking about it brings blood to the eyes.
But that can make it hard to see. We all desire to punish those who destroy children’s innocence. We call for their heads. We want no mercy. But there’s no denying the NCAA leapfrogged its usual authority here, and so swiftly and viciously swung the bat into Penn State’s gut that it will be years before we know the precedents that have been set.
If it’s $60 million and all victories for pedophilia, what happens, for example, if a future coaching staff member commits rape – and it’s covered up? What if coaches get involved in a drug ring? These are crimes, too. How do you determine which are more heinous? And when does the NCAA jump in – and how fast?
Normally, this is why we have a court system. And that court system will be used plenty in the victims’ future suits against Penn State. But the NCAA, heretofore charged with determining fairness and level playing fields, recruiting issues, competition infractions, has now slapped on a new badge.
What exactly is it the sheriff of now?
The collateral damage
Please understand, none of this questions the seriousness of Sandusky’s actions, and the unforgivable silence that Paterno and his staff chose in their wake. And maybe that’s why the NCAA itself admitted it had never done anything like this before, but was doing it now.
NCAA president Mark Emmert previously had said he had “never seen anything as egregious” as Sandusky’s crimes and the subsequent cover-up. This was why he dismissed the usual, long committee and referral process and went right for the gavel. And all of us agree, the crimes were horrific. Who doesn’t want fast justice?
But the perpetrators of those crimes are already gone. Paterno is dead, unable to even speak for himself. Sandusky, convicted, likely will be in prison for the rest of his life. The president, vice president and athletic director are disgraced and dismissed, and the latter two are facing perjury charges and failing to report child abuse.
Meanwhile, this tidal wave of punishment will bury the institution, but it also will drown innocent parties who bear no ties to the bad guys except the color of their sweatshirts. It is often the problem with NCAA punishment. It is particularly acute when the punishment comes for moral behavior that, as heinous as it was, arguably had no effect on victories.
The money machine
Now. The easy thing would be to shout “Hooray.” Even easier would be to scream “Not enough!” Who would argue with you? No one wants to appear soft on pedophile behavior – even though the actual number of kids molested every year that goes unreported is staggering. And the Nittany Lions playing in September with no action taken was a disturbing thought to many fans.
But the Penn State saga should not just be about the easy. For one thing, this same NCAA that is decrying how large sports have become is the very organization that makes them huge. Who do you think negotiates the billion-dollar TV deals for college sports? Who, if not the college presidents, lords over the gargantuan Final Four and the upcoming college football playoffs? I don’t see the NCAA or the presidents telling networks and advertisers, “Sorry, we need to keep things in perspective. Too much money might drive some of our teams to do bad things in a desperation to win.”
The NCAA never turned down a bigger spotlight. So when Emmert tells the media, “Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people,” he’s being, at best, naÃÂ¯ve, and at worst, hypocritical.
But he and the other presidents have acted – with unusual speed – and few are sympathetic to Penn State these days.
Two trains running, two different tracks. There’s football. There’s life. The ruling was a giant warning to other schools, and, yes, it makes people feel that justice has been served, the way a guillotine once did.
But when it comes to the real crimes, the head already has been cut off. And the ghosts are still out there, haunting the victims.
Sadly, the NCAA can do little about that.
Contact Mitch Albom: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His new novel, “The Time Keeper” (Hyperion, $24.99, 224 pages), will be released Sept.4. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m.