As I surveyed the reaction to the NCAA’s decision to crush the football program at Penn State University, one thought kept coming to me in two entirely different ways.
What if it had been my son?
What if it had been my son … who had been preyed upon by a pedophile?
And what if it had been my son … who was currently, say, a freshman or a sophomore on the Nittany Lions’ roster?
As different as they are, I feel profound sadness for both because each, in a sense, has been victimized by circumstances far beyond his control.
To be sure, I am not trying to give the two equal weight.
In the instance of the young boys sexually molested by former PSU Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky, their lives have been forever and profoundly changed. The money that will come from the civil lawsuits won’t erase the memories of their horrid experiences. There is no healing of their wounds.
If that were my son, there could be no penalty harsh enough, and I would be giving the NCAA a standing ovation, applauding its courage and swift response.
In the instance of the Penn State football players, they’ll still have games to play, and their college educations are paid for. Should they choose to leave, they can do so immediately and without penalty.
Still, they signed letters of intent to play at Penn State, and to compete for championships and postseason appearances. Because of actions—or, more precisely, inactions—of more than a decade ago, those goals are now gone. Indeed, winning just a few games with a roster decimated by scholarship reductions will be difficult.
And if that were my son, I would have to ask the NCAA hierarchy what, exactly, he did to deserve this.
Thus illustrates the darned-if-it-did, darned-if-it-didn’t conundrum confronting the NCAA, which was both highly praised and widely condemned for the sanctions it handed Penn State.
How many times have we heard its critics decry the NCAA as toothless? So, when the most egregious acts by a member in association history took place, the NCAA responded by baring its fangs and was assailed for biting too hard.
There remains, too, the adamant protestations of innocence from at least one of the principals involved, former Penn State President Graham Spanier, who has publicly decried what he claims to be multiple inaccuracies contained in the Freeh Report, which Penn State and the NCAA have accepted as fact.
One has to ask, what if it’s not fact, at least not in its entirety?
As suggested in this and other forums last week, there can be some good that will come from this, notably the $60 million Penn State will contribute to programs dealing with child abuse.
And in time—considerable time, to be certain—I have no doubt Penn State will again field nationally competitive football teams.
But amid cries for “wake-up calls” and “gut-checks,” I’m far less certain that the actions taken against Penn State will significantly alter the culture of big-time college sports. As I’ve written here on several occasions, this is a culture created by all of us, myself included. It’s fans, boosters, coaches, institutional academic and athletic leadership, advertisers, conferences, the NCAA itself and, yes, perhaps at the top of the list, the media. It is the media that provides the money that makes the stakes so high, and it is the media that prizes victories over values time and again.
I’ll say it one more time: In our “culture,” not nearly enough of us wish to care about the hundreds of thousands of student-athletes who are going to class, earning meaningful degrees, and taking their skills and experiences on to become productive citizens.
We don’t care if we admit unqualified students as long as they are exceptional athletes. We don’t really care about graduation rates. We don’t care when TV demands games be played early in the morning or late on a weeknight. We don’t care if a young man spends only a few months on a college campus, as long as he wins a championship in his brief time there. We don’t care when schools join conferences that make no geographical sense or what hardships that might bring to participants in non-revenue sports.
What our culture values most is winning, pure and simple. And in a way, that makes victims of us all.•
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.