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July 16, 2012 4:49 PM The Courts Will Punish Penn State, Not the NCAA

By Danny Vinik

There has been a lot written about the scandal at Penn State - from the conviction of Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of child sex abuse to the tarnished legacy of Joe Paterno - but the media has written less about how the National Collegiate Athletic Association will respond to the situation. As the organizer of college athletics, the NCAA has the responsibility to punish schools that break its rules, including violating recruiting regulations, paying players and many other different infractions.

As a New York Times article on the topic today says, the worst possible decision the NCAA could hand down on Penn State would be a “lack of institutional control.” The punishment for a “lack of institutional control” has varied in the past, with some schools receiving post-season bans and a reduction in scholarships while the worst offenders received the “death penalty,” when the NCAA forces the school to shut down a sport for at least a year. Southern Methodist University, one of five schools to ever get the “death penalty,” was the last Division I school to receive it in 1987. It turned what was a top national football program into mediocre team that did not return to a bowl game until 2009.

The NCAA imposed such a strict penalty on Southern Methodist because the football program was paid players out of a slush fund when it was already on probation. Since then, the NCAA has been very wary about giving out such a harsh punishment as it affects more than just the program.

If the NCAA forced Penn State to shut down its football program for a year or longer, it would have major effects elsewhere. Teams scheduled to face Penn State would have to rework their schedules and would undoubtedly lose money from losing a major game such as Penn State.

The current players and coaches on the team, who have done nothing wrong, will have to wait until the ban is done to return to the field or will have to find a new place to play or coach. For the players, there is almost no chance they could transfer schools and receive a scholarship from a high-level program this early before the season. The same is true for coaches, who would almost certainly be unable to find a job at a top football program in this short of time.

Most importantly would be the money the school loses from the ban. At CBSSports, Gregg Doyel wrote an article advocating against a ban. In it, he wrote:

An economic impact study by the university found that a season of seven home games generates roughly $40 million for the area within 25 miles of Beaver Stadium — and that study was done in 1987, when the stadium seated 83,370. Today the capacity is 106,572. So start with $40 million, add another 23,000 fans — factor in a quarter-century of inflation — and you see my point. Without Penn State football, State College suffers.

As Doyel goes on to say, the football program also brings in $53 million in profit, financially supporting every other sport at the school and some academic programs as well. The “death penalty” would be a crippling blow not just for the football team but also for the entire community and every other sports program in the school.

And worst of it all, it would do nothing to punish those who deserve it. The man most at fault here is Jerry Sandusky and he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

Paterno is dead and instead of being remembered as one of the greatest college football coaches of all time, he’ll be remembered for putting football over the safety of young boys.

Former athletic director Tim Curley and former Vice President for Finance and Business Gary Schultz both face charges of their one - one count of failing to report child abuse and one count of perjury each.

Former President Graham Spanier was fired in November and could be facing similar charges as Curley and Schultz face soon.

Penn State will have to pay out huge sums of money in civil suits as well.

Those five men and the university deserve their punishments. But the current players and coaches, they didn’t do anything wrong. The university’s other student-athletes, who could see their team demoted from the varsity to club level if the NCAA implements the “death penalty,” didn’t do anything wrong.

In fact, the Penn State football program did not violate any NCAA rules. Certainly, the scandal is worse than any rules violation, but the fact of the matter is that the NCAA has never brought down sanctions on players or coaches for breaking the law (unless they violated an NCAA rule as well).

Nevertheless, many people believe that the severity of the situation and the fact that university put football over young boys requires the NCAA to act. Clearly, the football program had too much influence and the university will pay for that mightily through civil suits. But the “death penalty” is supposed to combat repeated, willful NCAA infractions, not the unethical and illegal actions of coaches and administrators.

So while many people are yelling at the NCAA to hit Penn State with a major penalty, it would be wise for the institution to do the opposite, not impose anything at all and continuing letting the courts delve out the punishment. After all, the NCAA’s job is to implement sanctions against schools violating NCAA rules; it’s the court’s duty to enforce the law.

Danny Vinik is an intern at the Washington Monthly.