Commentary

Not 'death,' but something like it

A new standard of misconduct warranted a new standard of punishment

Originally Published: July 23, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

We Were … Penn State.

In the 3 minutes and 14 seconds it took NCAA president Mark Emmert to announce the details of the NCAA's surgical and devastating sanctions Monday morning, the Penn State that Joe Paterno once ruled for decades ceased to exist. It was removed as if it were a years-old wart, too unsightly to endure anymore.

[+] EnlargePenn State Reaction
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarStudents on Penn State's campus were stunned when the NCAA announced its punishment Monday.

The NCAA, with Penn State's grim blessings, didn't impose the so-called death penalty. It went much further than that. It ordered the university and the people who run it to transform its soul.

The sanctions are beyond crippling. From a pure punitive standpoint, Penn State could have recovered earlier and easier had the football program been shuttered for a season, or even two.

But that wasn't the point, was it? The NCAA wanted the football program to suffer -- and it will for a long, long time -- but more important, it wanted it to undergo a permanent transformation. Otherwise, none of this matters.

The penalties were designed to force Penn State -- at least the way it was operated by Paterno, the board of trustees, athletic director Tim Curley, and former president Graham Spanier -- to change its identity. Hero worship is out. Accountability and transparency are in.

Penn State required more than the death penalty because its sins were so unconventional, so groundbreaking in scope. Compare that with SMU, which was shut down by the NCAA in 1987 because it was an outlaw program in an often outlaw Southwest Conference. There was cheating, lots of it when it came to paying recruits, but at least you could wrap your arms around the deceit.

The transgressions of Penn State were far more troubling and profound. There was, said Dr. Ed Ray, chairman of the NCAA's executive committee, "a conspiracy of silence'' as it related to the university and the Jerry Sandusky reign of child abuse terror. And that conspiracy was given life by Paterno and those who supposedly worked above him.

"One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail, indeed, too big to even challenge," Emmert said.

[+] EnlargeMark Emmert
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNCAA president Mark Emmert asked if college athletics had the "right balance in our culture" when he announced Penn State's punishment.

Sandusky committed the incomprehensible crimes against young boys. Penn State (Paterno, Spanier, Curley, etc.) was complicit because of its inaction. The football program had become too big to challenge.

Penn State football will need prosthetics to walk again. There's the death penalty, and then there's what Nittany Lions football got Monday.

Do the math. Penn State won't have a full roster of 85 scholarship players until near the end of the decade. With those limitations, it will be lucky to beat Indiana. And expect defections as existing players transfer out and decommits as recruits sign elsewhere.

Penn State can't play in the Big Ten Conference championship game or a bowl game for the next four years.

It remains on probation for five years. It is censured by its own conference. And it no longer holds the distinction of once being led by the winningest coach in major college football history, now that 111 of Paterno's victories have been vacated.

Penn State allowed Paterno to accumulate so much power over the years that it was incapable of nimble, responsible and human response when Sandusky's twisted behavior became known. That concentration of power is why the NCAA stuck Nittany Lions football down the garbage disposal Monday and flipped the switch.

There is no way around it: The death penalty would have been a reprieve. Now the school has to write checks worth $60 million to the NCAA and about another $13 million to the Big Ten. The money will be donated to charitable organizations affiliated with child abuse protection and prevention.

In less than nine months, since Sandusky was first arrested last November, so much has changed. Penn State has changed. Paterno is gone. So is his statue and his legacy of unquestioned good.

Curley is ill and on administrative leave.

Spanier could be indicted soon, joining Curley and former university vice president Gary Schultz.

Civil lawsuits could cost the university between $100 million and $200 million.

Sandusky, convicted on 45 counts of child sex abuse, likely will be in prison for the rest of his life.

"There's nothing in this situation anyone should feel good about," Emmert said. "This is an awful place to be."

Penn State did this to itself. Or more precisely, Paterno, Spanier, Curley, Schultz and the trustees did this. Now the NCAA, in an unprecedented and arguably dangerous decision, is using the case as a petri dish of reform.

Emmert, the Division I board of directors and the NCAA executive committee have taken this risk. They unleashed the hounds on Penn State and its football program. And they did it not just to make a point, but to make a change.

"The fundamental message here, the gut-check message is, do we have the right balance in our culture?" he said. "Do we have, first and foremost, the academic values of integrity and honesty and responsibility as the drivers of our university? Or are we in a position where hero worship and winning at all costs has subordinated those core values?"

Penn State didn't have that balance. That's why its football program is at the brink of amputation, thanks partly to those NCAA penalties.

But changing scholarship numbers and changing a culture are two distinct things. I'd like to think Penn State -- and college athletics along with it -- will be forever transformed by this dark experience.

But I doubt it.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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