Scoggins: Penalties are harsh only if we forget why

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 24, 2012 - 6:39 AM

Penn State's program will pay a severe price, but nothing compared to real victims.

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Ed Ray (left), NCAA Executive Committee chair and NCAA President Mark Emmert answered questions about the penalties imposed upon Penn State during a news conference in Indianapolis on Monday. The NCAA has slammed Penn State with an unprecedented series of penalties, including a $60 million fine and the loss of all coach Joe Paterno's victories from 1998-2011, in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

Photo: Michael Conroy, Associated Press

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In the end, Penn State's football program didn't receive the death penalty. It just felt like it.

The NCAA swung its hammer Monday and delivered unprecedented and crippling sanctions against Penn State and its football program over a child sexual molestation scandal. The penalties were historically harsh, and a swift, decisive action by a governing body that is routinely mocked for its toothless approach to discipline.

The punishment: A four-year postseason ban, $60 million fine, massive scholarship limitations, victories vacated from 1998 to 2011, current players free to transfer immediately without restriction.

The NCAA stopped short of applying the death penalty, but the actual punishment might be more punitive than a temporary suspension of football in Happy Valley. The sanctions practically ensure the program won't recover for years, probably decades and maybe ever. Penn State football is dead for the foreseeable future.

How do you feel now?

Are you relieved, satisfied, sad, still angry?

Is it possible to feel all those emotions at the same time on the same subject, because I sure do.

My emotions ran the gamut in contemplating what to express about the penalties and their potential ramifications for a football team, school and community. What happened at Penn State was so egregious, so sickening and so preventable that any punishment handed down would not be harsh enough, even if the NCAA arguably overstepped its boundaries in a criminal matter without launching its own investigation or following its normal protocol.

This case is bigger than football, bowl games or a coach's record. Kids' lives were ruined, and any parent or person with common decency should shudder at the hurt and devastation it caused. Credit the NCAA for directing the $60 million to programs that work to prevent child sexual abuse and assist victims.

This doesn't ignore the fact that many people who had nothing to do with Jerry Sandusky's despicable acts or the cover-up by Joe Paterno and a few Penn State leaders will suffer because of them. Sandusky is rotting in jail, Paterno is dead and the administrators who could have put an early stop to the abuse in this horrific case are gone.

A wide swath of innocent people are left to navigate a mess they didn't create. I feel genuinely sorry for the current Penn State players who don't deserve this and the alumni who love that university and are emotionally conflicted because they are tethered to the worst scandal in college sports history. Not every fan engaged in the kind of "hero worship" that NCAA President Mark Emmert described in calling for a cultural change.

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

We're skeptical, however, that the Penn State case and punishment will result in Emmert's desired sea change in how college football and college athletics overall are viewed nationally. The actions and inactions at Penn State were terrible, but it seems naive to suggest that college football somehow will become de-emphasized as a result.

College football is big business. It drives athletic departments and pays the bills for nonrevenue sports. The arms race -- whether you like it or not -- is not slowing down or going backward. It's a noble idea but not entirely realistic.

It's OK to admit that college football is important as long as it comes with the necessary oversight and morality from those in leadership positions. Penn State officials and Paterno specifically failed miserably in that regard because of an insatiable ego and desire to protect a coach's legacy and the program's image.

The hope here is that the NCAA's harsh penalties send a resounding message that prevents something like that from happening again. Maybe it will force the next person with knowledge of such a crime to step forward rather than remain silent, to show some courage when confronting an authority figure, to simply do the right thing at a time of crisis. If that's reform, we're all for it.

This painful chapter undoubtedly will change Penn State's athletic culture. The school must redefine who and what it is. It's unfortunate that innocent people who had nothing to do with this sad situation now must pay the price, but that's how the system works. We can argue whether that's fair or just or piling on, but they're not the real victims here.

We can't lose sight of that.

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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