Benner/Sports and NCAA and Opinion and College Sports and Sports Business

BENNER: NCAA should tread lightly with Penn State football

July 21, 2012

Predictably, the report recently issued by former FBI Director Louis Freeh regarding the horrific coverup and enabling of convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky at Pennsylvania State University has inspired over-the-top reaction from many in the media.

Shut down Penn State football, they insist, demanding that the NCAA exercise the so-called “death penalty” and send the Nittany Lions to the sidelines.

In many cases, these demands are offered by those who were gushing with delight over the decision to institute a four-team playoff for the national championship in major college football.

If you think one doesn’t have anything to do with the other, think again. Those clamoring to control the excesses of college football in general and Penn State in particular are also in favor of a playoff that, without question, will further contribute to the excesses of college football by increasing the pressure to win.

And winning begets power, the kind of power Joe Paterno wielded at Penn State.

As long as the wins piled up, there was no reason to peel back the onion.

Those who dared challenge Paterno—most notably, a dean of student affairs who called into question why there was one set of misconduct penalties for the student body and another for football players—were sent packing.

Paterno won so much, became so powerful, and generated so much money that when university brass tried to force him into retirement several years ago, his reply was “no” and their reply was, “Well, OK, then.”

But then came the Sandusky scandal and the subsequent Freeh report.

By dying in the interim, Paterno may have gotten off easy in comparison to the living hell that has enveloped former President Graham Spanier, Vice President Gary Schultz and Athletic Director Tim Curley, the other principals Freeh identified, who long ago could have alerted authorities to Sandusky’s abhorrent conduct.

In fairness, Spanier’s attorneys claim the Freeh report is filled with inaccuracies, that “facts” were gathered to support a pre-ordained conclusion, and that they will mount a vigorous defense on behalf of their client. As well they should. Despite the damning report, there still is supposed to be a presumption of innocence in America.

Which is precisely why the Indianapolis-based NCAA—despite the media howl of, “Crucify them, crucify them”—must tread lightly before doing something so drastic as shutting down Penn State football.

Gary Roberts, the respected dean of the Indiana University McKinney School of Law here in Indianapolis wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times:

“ … for an external organization like the NCAA, which is supposed to ensure fair and ethical athletic competition, to step in and impose sanctions against a program for the criminal conduct of people employed by the university—when that conduct had no effect on athletic competition—would be a dangerous and unwarranted arrogation of power by an entity that already has enormous power over colleges and universities.”

Roberts is dead on. Other than vengeance, I’m hard-pressed to think of what the death penalty would do, other than punish thousands of innocent people.

And it would do nothing to curb the competitive excesses and pressures to win.

My suggestion is that, instead of shutting down Penn State football, why not use that economic engine to do some enormous good? Why not mandate that a percentage of game receipts be diverted to programs that help children who have been victims of sexual abuse, or for scholarships to the kinds of fatherless boys on whom Sandusky preyed?

Leave it to the criminal and civil courts to determine further guilt and punishment.

Besides, in time, media outrage will focus on what worthy teams were left out of the playoff and which “power“ coach should lose his job for not getting them there.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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