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Tuesday, July 24, 2012
NCAA offers losing solution

By Tim Keown
ESPN.com

There's only one honest way to look at the punishments slapped on Penn State: The NCAA set out to create a losing program, and it went about the task systematically, with all the subtlety of a watermelon being tossed from the back of a moving pickup.

Forget NCAA president Mark Emmert's talk of "reform." This wasn't reform; this was after-the-fact, frontier-style revenge. Jerry Sandusky and Penn State embarrassed and disgusted the hell out of the NCAA, the Big Ten and just about everybody who ever uttered the phrase "success with honor" within a 200-mile radius of Happy Valley. A whole bunch of someones had to pay for this, and the NCAA decided it would start with the legacy of Joe Paterno (already shredded) and knock down the rest of the dominoes from there.

It would have been neater and more humane to have imposed a one-year death penalty on the Penn State program-- and that's exactly why the NCAA didn't do it. The entities in the corner offices in Indianapolis wanted to make Penn State suffer, and the best way to do that is to take a machete to scholarships, declare amnesty for the current players, and then sit back and cackle into the sleeve of their suit coats.

Penn State Stadium
Penn State could have closed the stadium last fall. The NCAA could have closed it this year.

It's like taping a bird's wings to its sides and then calling the cat over to have a look.

Emmert's main thesis, near as I could tell, centered on his remarks about certain programs becoming "too big to fail." The only way this happens is for programs to win, as Paterno's did at a remarkable rate. As a result, people like Paterno become the kind of false gods who compel otherwise-sane people to erect statues to living people. (Like the Baseball Hall of Fame, there should be a five-year waiting period after retirement when it comes to statues.)

And so the problem, at its core, is the winning that distorted values and created a culture that allowed Sandusky to rape children. Repeatedly. We get that. Punishments, severe punishments, were in order. But there is something inherently hypocritical about responding to a problem created by winning by imposing sanctions intended to create losing. Why not just kill it off for a year? If you don't want to look out onto the field during an important game and see the Penn State uniform -- and all the sad emotions it presently invokes -- then put them aside for a year and let Bill O'Brien and his guys get their acts together in private.

Because here's the thing: You can't tell us the problem is with the idolatry that comes from winning and then make decisions that are based solely on the importance of wins and losses. What the NCAA did was tell Penn State it was going to lose, and lose for a good long while, and suffer while doing it, as a punishment for allowing winning to become so important it overshadowed basic human dignity.

The NCAA officially legislated that Penn State become a losing program as a means of de-emphasizing the culture created by winning. But when the penalties focus on wins -- taking away Paterno's from the past and Bill O'Brien's for the future -- doesn't that simply reinforce the importance of winning?

Emmert said the NCAA's decision is intended to ensure that "football will never be put ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people." And so, to make doubly sure, Emmert and crew turned Penn State into San Jose State for the foreseeable future. There's an obvious question here -- does anybody really think a situation of similar heinousness would have happened again without the NCAA's intervention? But more than that, Emmert missed a chance to do something important. He missed the opportunity to say this isn't about winning and losing; it's about dignity, and morals, and having the fortitude to make a statement that doesn't serve to glorify the person making it.

I wrote back in November that Penn State should have forfeited the Nebraska game after the allegations about Sandusky broke and Paterno was fired. They should have taken a step back as a means of telling the world that the university was taking this seriously, and the best idea for all involved was to let it sit for a week while everybody digests. Had they done that, would Monday's announcement have been different? Would the university have been seen as more sensitive, understanding? And if the Freeh report hadn't disclosed that Paterno negotiated a more lucrative contract for himself and his family as the scandal was playing out -- one of the more unsavory aspects of the report -- would the NCAA have decided against using the bunker buster on JoePa's legacy?

There's no doubt the NCAA needed to do something drastic, original and meaningful. It needed to do something that indicated it understood who was innocent, who was guilty and who was victimized. It needed to go outside its normal routine and make a statement that was neither self-serving nor vindictive, something that took into account the shame and conviction that followed Sandusky. If framed properly, a one-year death penalty -- call it an opportunity to regroup and recuperate -- could have worked. Instead, the NCAA fell back on tradition: an utter lack of imagination, with a side of vindictiveness, and a resolution vague enough to be no kind of resolution at all.