Ohio State plays Penn State on Saturday in a game featuring a football powerhouse that went astray, with mind-boggling negligence that led to the dismissal of its coach -- negligence that will draw the wrath of the NCAA.
The game also includes Penn State.
Understand, there is a difference between the recent scandals at Ohio State and Penn State as they relate to college athletics. One school should be, and will be, sanctioned severely by the NCAA. The other school -- Penn State -- should not.
Before I move on to Penn State, let me say this about Ohio State: What happened there under Jim Tressel wasn't all that bad. Not compared to what happened at Penn State. Several months ago, what happened at Ohio State seemed atrocious -- a coach looking the other way, not reporting the obvious NCAA violations of his best players, and then winning the Big Ten title with players who should have been ineligible. At the time that seemed horrible, and five months ago I wrote as much.
Today? Today, what happened at Ohio State seems like a series of NCAA violations. Nothing more, nothing less. What happened was against NCAA rules, and it's important that Ohio State pays for those violations, but it no longer seems atrocious. It no longer seems horrible.
Not compared to what is alleged in State College, Pa.
Former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky is charged with sexually abusing eight boys, some after coach Joe Paterno was made aware of an incident in 2002. Paterno told his boss, but he never told the police. His boss never told the police. Nobody told the police in 2002 -- and police say Sandusky kept assaulting boys for years.
That's atrocious. That's horrible. That's unspeakable.
But it's not an NCAA violation.
Look, hang with me for a second. I'm not excusing a damn thing, but I'm positive that if you can read the rest of this story with a little less anger and little more logic, you'll agree. I'm also positive that many of you won't be able to relinquish your anger enough to appreciate the nuances I'm about to explain. And you know what? I'm OK with that. Some things are so atrocious, so horrible, so unspeakable, that people can't let go of their fury just because someone else -- someone like me, right here -- asks you to try.
So you feel what you feel. Don't let me stop you. But I'll continue:
Penn State should not be in trouble with the NCAA. Not even a little bit. With what we know right now, I don't see the need for the NCAA to even investigate.
This is a criminal matter. In insultingly basic terms, that's all it is. Now, it just so happens to be the most despicable criminal matter in the history of college sports -- but that doesn't make it an NCAA matter. NCAA president Mark Emmert is trying to suggest otherwise, including this official statement and then a radio spot Thursday night, when he said that the NCAA has "rules and bylaws that -- while they were never written to address anything quite like this of course -- speak directly to the control that institutions have to maintain over their athletic departments and their programs."
But when asked point-blank about the NCAA's jurisdiction here by Marketplace interviewer Kai Ryssdal -- "Let me make sure I understand you," Ryssdal said. "There is room here for NCAA sanctions against Penn State?" -- Emmert gave a non-answer.
"We have a very strong interest in making sure that our programs are reflective of the best values of athletics and of universities," he said.
He didn't say, "Yes." Because he can't. And shouldn't.
Even if you assume the principal allegations are true -- that Sandusky did sexually abuse children, and that some of them were abused after Paterno and his bosses failed to get the police involved in 2002 -- then the people who deserve punishment will get it. Sandusky would go to prison for the rest of his life. Paterno already has been fired. Three men above him, including president Graham Spanier and athletics director Tim Curley, have been removed. Police have charged Curley for his negligence, and it's possible they will go after Spanier and even Paterno before all is said and done.
And there's the inevitability of civil lawsuits. If Sandusky is found guilty of a single assault after 2002 -- and at least one boy alleges he was assaulted for more than a year, ending in 2008 -- Paterno, Spanier and Graham are open to enormous lawsuits. So is Penn State as a university, an athletic department, even a football program.
Point is, nobody's going to get away with anything. Assuming the allegations against Sandusky are proved true in a court of law.
And that's the only place where this thing belongs. Listen, I know that's not what people want to read or hear, but that's the way it has to be. This isn't like the Baylor tragedy in 2003, when coach Dave Bliss accused one of his players, Patrick Dennehy, of being a drug dealer after Dennehy was murdered by former teammate Carlton Dotson.
The NCAA hammered Baylor, but not because of legal crimes. Bliss had broken NCAA rules by paying thousands of dollars to keep Dennehy in school -- and when the NCAA found that violation and others, the NCAA crushed Baylor.
Baylor had cheated to get a competitive advantage. Penn State did not. It really is as simple as that.
But in their bloodlust for vengeance, lots of people want Penn State to pay as much as possible -- criminally, yes, but athletically too. People want the NCAA to get involved, since Penn State operates under the purview of the NCAA.
Not to be silly about this, because this is not a topic for silliness, but Penn State also is under the purview of the IRS. Although the school seems to have broken no tax laws in this scandal, should the IRS impose tax penalties on Penn State ... just because? The Penn State athletic department is under the purview of the federal government because of Title IX as well. Although the Nittany Lions seem to have broken no Title IX guidelines in this scandal, should the U.S. government withhold federal funds from the program? Just because?
"Institutional control" is what folks will cling to as they demand that the NCAA punish Penn State -- and it's obvious that Penn State did fail to show institutional control. But in the NCAA rulebook, "institutional control" relates to adherence to NCAA rules.
Institutional control as it relates to crimes committed on campus, crimes not reported sufficiently to the police? Crimes that may have continued for years and years? That's not what "institutional control" means to the NCAA. Well, it's not.
It's up to the legal system to throw the book at Penn State, and make no mistake about where I stand: That book better be big. And the legal system better throw it hard.