Penn State needs death penalty to move on

By Bryan Fischer | Blogger

You don't wish it on a family member or your worst enemy's sweet old grandmother, but for some reason wishing death -- or in this case the death penalty -- seems to be tossed out like a threat from a Texas prosecutor.

Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno before the scandal that rocked Penn State.

USC should have deserved the death penalty if you ask a few UCLA fans. Miami was asked to drop football in 1995 and once again last year following an explosive report into large-scale NCAA violations. Now too, the calls are renewed for Penn State to receive the penalty that is most famously associated with the legendary rise and fall of SMU in the late 1980's.

I wasn't in this camp, nor anywhere close to it. What happened at Penn State was an issue for the law, not bylaws I thought. If the school was going to get punished it would do so by judges and a jury of their peers and not the arbitrary justice system the NCAA leans on with the Committee on Infractions.

But then I read the 267-page Freeh Report that came out on Thursday morning, listened to Louis Freeh himself during his press conference and waited to hear what the Penn State Board of Trustees and the Paterno Family had to say.

And I kept coming to the conclusion that Penn State should be given the death penalty.

"The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consigned disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims.

Four of the most powerful people at The Pennsylvania State University - President Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno - failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade. These men concealed Sandusky's activities from the Board of Trustrees, the University community and authorities."

This isn't a coach lying about a barbecue or whether he knew about a kid's car, there are documents that show the role Spanier, Curly, Schultz and Paterno had in a cover up that resulted in the worst scandal in college sports.

You may think that the courts and authorities should handle such matters and that will likely be true of the aforementioned individuals. It's a criminal matter but also one that is about a school and the culture -- the "Penn State Way" -- that has infiltrated every corner of State College in one way or the other. Who punishes the program that supported and even nurtured the atmosphere and people that ultimately contributed to the cover up?

"I think we should be careful that we don't paint the entire football program over a long period of time with a single brush," university president Rodney Erickson told reporters Thursday. "This particular tragedy happened within the football program, but it could have happened many other places."

Yet it did happen to this football program, at Penn State, by Penn State employees and was done with the express purpose of protecting the Penn State football program. That's why the NCAA, in concert and in addition to the legal authorities, must take their pound of flesh as well.

This is a criminal case to be sure, but it's also one about an ever encompassing program. The Committee on Infractions won't punish Spanier, Schultz or any of the other individuals as they wither away in jail, but the COI still wields the power to punish the apparatus that gave them their influence and what they so desperately wanted to protect. This is a case about power and at the heart of that lies football. Last I checked, that was the domain of the folks in Indianapolis.

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The Department of Education will take issue with violations of the Clery Act -- which the football program knowingly opted out of -- that might be the most worrisome long term issue for the university. King Football, it too must be dealt with and it starts with removing it at Penn State. What happened in State College doesn't preclude it from being an NCAA one.

There's a reason the death penalty has been handed out so rarely (just three times to a Division I program): it was designed to be a threat just as much as it was effective. When the COI slapped SMU with it, they noted the program "was built on a legacy of wrongdoing, deceit and rule violations."

That statement rings true about Penn State today.

Leadership knew about Jerry Sandusky's issues in 1998. They knew in 2001. It was brought to their attention once again in 2011. And yet Sandusky still had keys to the Lasch Building, home to the football program, when he was arrested and attended a game the week beforehand.

"(Janitors) were afraid to take on the football program. They said the university would circle around it. It was like going against the President of the United States," Louis Freeh said at his press conference. "If that's the culture on the bottom, God help the culture at the top."

We are all fallible, but the leaders at Penn State were so to the nth degree. Paterno, the man the NCAA itself held up as a shining example of how to do it right, lied. He lied to a grand jury, his players, his peers and to himself. He covered things up. He bullied others into keeping his job when they wanted him to retire. Joe Paterno was Penn State football and Penn State football was Joe Paterno, but one can't move on like it should even if the other is six feet under.

When the king of the king-makers is the root of the problem, the solution cannot lie on the surface.

"The facts are the facts," Freeh said of Paterno, "he was an integral part of the act to conceal."

This case would have been damaging to the legacy of everyone involved if Sandusky had been turned in many years ago. Perhaps the winningest coach in college football history would have survived a few more years, perhaps not. None of that forgives the fact that any number of people, starting with ol' JoePa on down the line, could have walked down to the police station or picked up the phone.

"I think it's a very strong and reasonable inference (Paterno) could have done so if he wished," Freeh said bluntly.

Nobody can erase history -- the wins, the players who graduated, the national titles, etc. -- but we can change how we view it. We will do so with Paterno's legacy, Sandusky and the Nittany Lions. An outspoken supporter at the coach's funeral, Nike chairman Phil Knight reversed his tune Thursday and he will be one of many. For progress on a larger scale however, a clean break is needed or else it will be one step backward for every two steps forward.

Depriving Penn State of a program for a year (or even more) seems unfathomable to some, yet I wonder if the victims, the forgotten souls we only know as No. 4, No. 7, No. 10 and so forth, would be able to move on quicker if they didn't see the mascot waving the flag amid a white-out next fall.

The fans will do something not involving football if the day of reckoning comes. Life will go on, the university will move forward. When the time is right recruits will commit, tickets will be sold and the culture that returns to Penn State football will be radically different and put in the proper perspective.

The NCAA has, on purpose or due to a lack of PR skills (or both), backed itself into a corner. President Mark Emmert could have kept things in-house until the case itself was wrapped up and the facts were well known by all, but instead sent the letter that put Penn State on notice and alerted the world that something could happen. The association's quick press release, within minutes, once the Freeh Report was released suggested that no matter what columnist or talking head wanted to write, the NCAA would be a part of the conversation.

Who knows, maybe Penn State will fall on the sword first before the NCAA comes up behind the Lions with one of its own. I doubt either comes to pass but it should as King Football cannot help heal as much as the absence of it would. The culture must change in Happy Valley and business will still be the same even if the practices are different.

"There is an over-emphasis on 'The Penn State Way' as an approach to decision making, a resistance to seeking outside perspectives, and an excessive focus on athletics that can, if not recognized, negatively impact the University's reputation as a progressive institution," the report stated.

So take away the boosters, the TV money, the wins and the game itself. On a field devoid of the life of the game hopefully the seeds of the sport itself -- the passion and the pride -- will return to grow stronger. If you're a Nittany Lion fan or alum, supporting the pure emotions of college football is something I'd want to believe in even if Saturday's in the fall are filled with far less action.

This isn't an NCAA matter some will say. Why isn't it? It happened at a program that adheres to the association's bylaws and is an active member in previous good standing. There was unethical conduct, as the serious criminal charges against Schultz and Curley can attest to. The main leaders of the university, including the Board, failed to act when presented with all the right information. The COI typically punishes programs for wrongful actions taken by employees and in this case they have to see the wrongful inactions by employees in the same light. If an organization that can declare a ham sandwich a booster can't find the Penn State program lacked control over its administrators or that they acted unethical, then they might as well blow the system up.

At the end of the day the NCAA can do what it wants and in this case, handing out the death penalty is a statement that cuts through the B.S. and addresses what happened. Schools are willing participants in a system of arbitrary justice and in cases like Penn State's, sometimes it works out when judge and jury are appalled at what they see.

On the same day the Freeh Report was released, the COI declared Caltech lacked institutional control because of issues with its academic policy. Boise State was hit with the same charge largely because players were sleeping on couches. If those two deserve the LOIC charge and sanctions, there is no reason the worst scandal in college sports in recent memory doesn't deserve the maximum punishment.

The standard retort to giving the school the death penalty is it will harm the current players instead of punishing those that deserve it. Those student-athletes will be allowed to transfer without a penalty or stay and finish their degree at a fine academic institution. They're better off than those at USC who have to take extra reps - additional chances for concussions or serious injuries - with few players on scholarship, or the players at North Carolina who had their senior seasons taken away from them. Coaches can leave or can stay as they please.

Are a handful of scholarships appropriate punishment for the worst scandal in college sports most of us have seen in our lifetime? The answer is of course no. Liberty or death are the only two options. The Department of Education will take care of the school's punishment with regards to the scandal while the NCAA has to take care of the punishment of the athletic department. The reason the death penalty was given to SMU was because the penalties were intended to permit a new beginning for football and it's time for one at Penn State.

Last week I thought football could help heal, at least a little, a school and community rocked by scandal. After reading though the Freeh Report however, an empty Beaver Stadium will have a far bigger and more thoughtful impact than having 100,000 fans chant, 'We are Penn State' during the fall.

No longer will those four words ever mean the same thing again. People like stories with a happy ending but for the Nittany Lions, the football program can't have one unless they close the book for good and start writing a new one.

 
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