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Want to really punish a team? Get them off the TV.

Originally Published: September 4, 2012
By Peter Keating | ESPN The Magazine

Sam FickenAP Photo/Andrew ShurtleffAt least three more Penn State games -- after their Sept. 8 loss to Virginia -- will be on national TV.

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ON SEPT. 1, Penn State opened its football season against Ohio in a game shown on ESPN. On Sept. 8, the Nittany Lions face Virginia on ABC. At least three more Penn State contests, and perhaps the school's entire 2012 schedule, will be nationally televised. But if the NCAA wanted its sanctions in the Jerry Sandusky child-rape case to mean anything -- to not just punish Penn State but to prevent the men and women who run other programs from abusing their power -- it would have banned those games from TV.

Once upon a time, TV bans were standard operating procedure in serious cases.

The NCAA fined Penn State $60 million and barred the football team from bowl and playoff games for four years, which will cost the school another $13 million in postseason money from the Big Ten. It doesn't matter that the NCAA's sanctions against the school are unprecedented. It matters only whether they carry the sting of deterrence. And pretty obviously, they do not. After all, the team generated $72.7 million in revenue last season. One year of football money -- that's all Penn State has to give up. As Mike Ozanian of Forbes writes, "Other schools must be thinking to themselves, We can get rich by turning over the keys to the school to the football team, and if something blows up down the road we will most likely still come out ahead financially."

Penn State's corporate sponsors certainly realize the program isn't fundamentally dented, which is why big brands such as Nike and Pepsi are still on campus. And alumni are rallying. Donations to Penn State increased during the 2011-12 academic year to $208 million, the second-highest total in school history. The NCAA can't do anything about that; some schools are just really popular. But it could have delivered an additional gut punch to Penn State's bank account with a TV blackout, denying the school the roughly $20 million a year it is owed from various broadcast deals. In so doing, the total financial penalties would have added up to about $153 million over four years -- more than two seasons of Nittany Lions football revenue. That's the kind of slam that would have sent the message that if a school screws up, it won't come out ahead. At the same time, unlike the death penalty, it would have punished the entities profiting from Penn State football -- the school, the Big Ten, their sponsors -- while keeping the athletes on the field.

Once upon a time, TV bans were standard operating procedure in serious cases. In the decade following SMU's death penalty in 1987, the NCAA slapped television blackouts on eight D1-A schools. But as media revenues soared, the NCAA grew reluctant to interfere with this key component of ballooning football budgets, and it has not imposed a TV ban since 1994. This has weakened the threat of NCAA punishments, which was already pathetic. A Mag study from 2010 looked at 27 cases of Football Bowl Subdivision programs since 1985 that were sanctioned for committing major violations. Turns out, these teams won an average of just 0.6 fewer games a year while NCAA penalties were in effect and rebounded to just about their former winning percentages in the three years after sanctions ended. Without any threat of a TV ban, it's even easier for most schools to ride out the sentences the NCAA hands down.

Look at USC, which just played through two years of allegedly harsh penalties (postseason ban, 30 lost scholarships) but stayed on TV. Matt Barkley is back for his senior season, and the Trojans are gunning for the national title. Or watch Ohio State, which will have at least five games on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2 this season to keep the media hooked on Urban Meyer's renewal project until the Buckeyes can play postseason games again next year. Or listen to new Penn State coach Bill O'Brien after the NCAA handed down its penalties against the Nittany Lions: "Are they good? No. I'm not an idiot. But we're playing football. We're on TV."

Penn State is already looking to cushion the program from the NCAA's penalties. It might schedule a 13th game against Hawaii in upcoming years to make up for its bowl ineligibility. Some deterrence! Truly effective sanctions would have stopped the Nittany Lions' games from being in our living rooms every week -- and would pay more than lip service to the idea that somebody other than his victims is suffering for Sandusky's sins.

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Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he covers investigative and statistical subjects. He started writing "The Biz," a column looking at sports business from the fan's point of view, in 1999. He also coordinates the Magazine's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.