The Holy Huddle: Commentary on the Penn State Sanctions

Each week in The Holy Huddle, Doug Hankins takes a look at the goings on of the sports world from a distinctly Christian perspective. 

By now you have heard about it. NCAA president Mark Emmert doled out a four-component set of sanctions against Penn State University’s football program in response to the gross negligence and failure to monitor the internal authority structures that allowed for widespread sexual assault of minors. The sanctions are as follows:

  • $60 million to be given to programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims of child sexual abuse
  • A four-year post season bowl ban
  • Reduction of annual football scholarships from 25 to 15 for each of the four years
  • Vacating all wins for the period in question (1998–2011)

Thus far, sports writers have fallen into one of two camps of response: (1) Was this correct? or (2) What now? As has been the tendency with this column, I want to weigh in on the first camp of responses.

But first, a few cursory remarks:

  1. No amount of sanctions will reverse time and fully repair the emotional/psychological/etc. damage inflicted on these children.
  2. God is the ultimate judge.
  3. The only thing that will ultimately change things is conversion of the heart.
  4. The PSU scandal is a loss. There is no win. Instead, we must focus on caring for the victims.

With these in mind, let’s look at the sanctions:

  • $60 million to be given to programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims of child sexual abuse. The figure represents the average revenue of the football program—a plausible starting point for a symbolic/practical gesture. But why stop at $60 million? Why not start there and ensure that additional yearly profit go toward this same program? By doing so, you would align PSU’s interest with the interest of preventing child abuse for the long haul.
  • A four-year post season bowl ban. I am disappointed by this condition. It is a punitive action that affects future players and coaches and not the appropriate past leaders. Furthermore, a bowl ban is an external punishment aimed at conditioning the internal—which almost never works. Instead of placing a bowl ban on future players and coaches, why not (see next comment) . . .
  • Reduction of annual football scholarships from 25 to 15 for each of the four years. I actually find this condition to be too light. Why not reduce ALL scholarships but keep the option of postseason play? One of the primary problems of the latter Paterno era was that Paterno (and Sandusky) seemed to demonstrate a devil-may-care attitude about off-the-field actions. As long as people produced on the field, it did not matter what they did off the field (or in the locker room). Wasn’t the goal of the PSU college football program to produce the highest character student athlete? Isn’t this exactly the opposite of what Paterno was doing in the latter years? Why not force the program to focus on the original goal? Why not remove scholarships, but keep the facilitates, schedules, uniforms, and BOWL ELIGIBILITY? After all, what would make for a more compelling football season: (a) a half-scholarship team that finishes 6–5 and is disqualified to make a bowl? or (b) a no-scholarship squad that finishes 6–5 and GOES BOWLING? I say (b). And, wouldn’t this produce a groundswell of support, compelling television, and a possible phoenix-like rise from the ashes? AND—wouldn’t it demonstrate the type of character we want in the ultimate student athlete?
  • Vacating all wins for the period in question (1998–2011). I appreciate the intent behind this move since it hits at another primary problem (the need to protect Paterno’s legacy of “winningest” coach of all time against all else). These wins were also achieved by student athletes. So, I would have advised the NCAA committee to strike the wins from Paterno’s record only, but keep them for the teams that won—if that is even possible.

I appreciate Dr. Emmert, but I would have preferred these adjustments. Imagine a world in which PSU becomes the symbol for child abuse prevention. What if the PSU community rallied to this cause? What if PSU fans spent money by the truckloads and it was channeled toward a child abuse prevention program? What if PSU’s football team made up of non-scholarship athletes routinely won six games (Navy does it consistently)? What if they could go to bowl games each year? Wouldn’t that be something to watch? And wouldn’t that be a cause to root for?

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  • Peter Bartlett

    While I understand your thoughts behind point #3 about the scholarship reduction and agree with them to an extent, any more scholarship reduction beyond what they are already getting is nearly a death penalty to the program. Penn State having a 6-5 season (in fact impossible considering the regular season is 12 games, lets say 6-6) when their scholarship reduction hits will already be a pretty impressive feat. No team could possibly compete in the Big Ten with a team entirely made up of walk ons. The best PSU could hope for is a 3 win season.


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