The Cowards' Coma: Penn State's Penalties, Joe Paterno's Vacated Wins, And NCAA Sound And Fury

Jan 1, 1999; Tampa, FL, USA; FILE PHOTO; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno on the sideline against the Kentucky Wildcats in the 1999 Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: US PRESSWIRE

This morning, Penn State avoided the death penalty. Instead, the Nittany Lions have been put into a coma by the NCAA, and will be there indefinitely. This is how the penalties shake out.

Four-year postseason ban
$60 million fine, to go to an endowment for children's charities, payable over five years
10 incoming scholarships lost first year, 20 scholarship deduction for four years (more or less an entire roster worth of scholarships)
Vacation of all wins from 1998 through 2011 (Joe Paterno now ranks seventh among all D1 coaches in wins)
Five years probation
Penn State players can transfer immediately without penalty

The damage this will do to Penn State on the field, where Bill O'Brien's team will often be playing with about three quarters of the scholarship players of its opponents, will be significant. The damage it does to Penn State the school is maybe less significant: The NCAA has decreed that the things accomplished in the final 13 years of Joe Paterno's tenure didn't exist because of the horrors permitted under his watch, a decision that will incense Penn State fans.

It's also a cowardly one.

You know what making Paterno de jure not the winningest coach in college football history does? It means that when the NCAA talks about the winningest coach in college football history, it doesn't have to explain how a coach who, at a minimum, failed to adequately guard against a serial sexual predator in his team's midst, still managed to win more football games than anyone else, ever. The NCAA is trying to write off 40 years of being complicit in making Paterno seem like the paragon of collegiate athletics with a wave of the hand that attempts to erase facts.

No one should let the NCAA get away with that overreach to save face, that ex post facto assertion of its morality. The NCAA was not designed and is not equipped to handle the sort of perversion of administration and leadership that comes with a case like Penn State's failure to prevent Jerry Sandusky from shattering lives, but, because it is the governing body of college sports, the NCAA decided to handle this case.


Spencer Hall: NCAA Beats Up Corpse, Then Demands Your Applause

To be fair, Mark Emmert's leviathan likely had no viable alternative than delivering sanctions: Was taking the chance of letting Penn State pick its own fate, or leaving it up to the Big Ten to sanction the school, worth it? Was running its own investigation into Penn State, one that would have taken many months, if not years, more to deliver results going to make the NCAA look anything more than toothless?

Some of the penalties the NCAA has handed down are good. $60 million over five years to support organizations that work to prevent and manage child abuse will do a world of good for at-risk children and victims of abuse alike, and five years of probation is probably plenty to make sure that Penn State carefully walks the tightrope of balancing its dueling needs to educate, protect, and compete and comes out with a system that does a better job of being humane through and through.

Stripping Penn State of scholarships (and creating an immediate secondary market for talented potential transfers, which makes for some other problems), though, punishes student-athletes who were not complicit in the failures of the Sandusky era, and does nothing for victims; a bowl ban does more or less the same thing on a smaller scale.

And all of it, taken together, establishes that the NCAA has the power to do whatever it wants in extraordinary circumstances; combined with the proof given by this swift judgment, it's a precedent that may force the NCAA to overplay its hand before every fact is known.


Related: Coverage Of Penn State's Sanctions

But I keep coming back to the vacation of wins. It doesn't do anything to Paterno, because he is dead. (It does something to Paterno's family, but Paterno's family standing by their patriarch to the detriment of their own humanity makes me think that it doesn't do much.) It doesn't do anything to Penn State, because those wins actually happened, the school made money and bathed in glory when they did, and the shame of allowing Jerry Sandusky to prey is incomparably more significant than the shame of "losing" football games retroactively. It doesn't do anything to leadership figures who never got credit for those wins in the first place. It doesn't do much for victims, unless those victims desperately needed Paterno's diminution.

No, the vacation of wins does the most for the NCAA. It empowers the NCAA, allows it frightening edit privileges over reality to assert that it can change factual events and rewrite history. It permits the NCAA to pretend that horror didn't occur, that the power accumulated by a football coach, by multiple football coaches, didn't contribute to crimes considered about as heinous as crime gets without a loss of life.

The vacation of Joe Paterno's wins allows the NCAA to turn away from college athletics' modern Ozymandias, the man so great that a graven image of him was erected with years to go in his life, and to insist that the world should pretend that nothing bad and nothing good happened for more than a decade, as if everyone watching was in its own coma. The gesture is as hollow as can be; it serves to encourage people to try to move on from the failures of Penn State, rather than grapple with them and strive to guard vigilantly against them forevermore.

Consider that, mighty and meek alike, and despair.

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