Putting Penn State's Punishment In Perspective

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Pointing to an "unprecedented failure" at the top levels of Penn State leadership, the NCAA announced wide-ranging sanctions against the football program. NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca talks about public reaction and what it could mean for the future of Penn State football.

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Yesterday, Penn State removed the now controversial statue of former football coach Joe Paterno. Today, the NCAA expunged his team's victories going back to 1998. According to the Freeh report, that's when he and the university failed to act on allegations of sexual abuse against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Other sanctions include fines, bans on post-season play and loss of football scholarships.

Does the punishment fit the crime? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. NPR sports correspondent Mike Pesca joins us now from our bureau in New York. Mike, always nice to have you on the program.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And, Mike, the NCAA levied a $60 million fine against Penn State. How did they arrive at that number?

PESCA: That is what they say, and most sides agree, is the estimate of how much revenue the football program brings in. The funds will go to establish a foundation to combat child sexual abuse. And as for the argument, which is often raised, well, football pays for all these other sports, Mark Emmert, who is the president of the NCAA, said like most businesses, colleges are - their finances are fungible. They'll be able to find another way to pay for this. This must not hurt any of the other sports in the NCAA. And there's getting ahead of ourself. I hope someone saves that comment because it's always brought up: Oh, we need college football. It pays for women's lacrosse.

CONAN: There is also - should the student athletes now on the football team be made to pay for crimes conducted over the past 14 years?

PESCA: Yeah. And I always find that a bit of a risible argument because, you know, we talk about, in NCAA terms, the death penalty, which is cancelling a program for a year or two, and those programs come back from the death penalty. But think about the analogy is in real life, the death penalty. I mean, you send someone to the electric chair for a murder. Of course, his family might suffer. All punishment - if you look at theories of jurisprudence, all punishment has some fall out. You know, there are always innocent victims whenever you punish.

So whenever the crime is so horrible, like in Penn State, to say that, you know, to talk about these innocent victims is, I always think, a little bit of, you know, myopic. And specifically in this instance, the Penn State players will not be victimized because they're free to transfer. Under NCAA rules, if you transfer to another school, you have to sit out for a year, not with Penn State. They're all free transfer or they're free to stay and not play football, and that's unprecedented. A player can say, well, I'm just using football to get an education. Guess what. You don't even have to play football if you're a Penn State player. You could get your education. So I think they did right, as right by the students as they could have.

CONAN: There is also a ban on post-season play - that's the bowl games - for four years and a reduction in the number of football scholarships from, what, 25 to 15 per year.

PESCA: Yeah. So they - they're at a huge disadvantage. I mean, this rule decimates Penn State football. The - Mark Emmert and his cohorts there at the NCAA spoke often - six times by my count - of the culture of football, how to change the culture at Penn State and the culture of football. And I think they found that the easiest way to change the culture is to essentially just drop a bomb on it. Don't eliminate it forever. Don't conduct a Trotsky-like purge of people who are inconvenient to your history. So Penn State can pretend, oh, there never was a problem or football here.

But they are going to have teams for the next six years that won't be good, that will have losing records, could be for the next eight or nine years. I don't see how a good recruit would ever commit to Penn State for the next four or five years. And so, yeah, the football team has suffered a serious setback because of the actions of former Penn State coaches and administrators.

CONAN: We should also mention Penn State is part of a conference, the Big Ten. It's now, I think, 13, but anyway - but the conference has also said Penn State will not be able to recoup any of the money. There's a profit-sharing agreement that if any of the Penn - the Big 10 schools goes to a bowl, they all share some of piece of the pie. Penn State won't get any of piece of that pie for the next fours years, about $13 million.

PESCA: Right. That'll be about 13. And they also said Penn State will not be eligible to participate in their championship game. Guess what? Penn State will not qualify for their championship, because as I've said, these punishments will really affect the quality of football and football team they're able to field.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. Does the punishment fit the crime? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Gary, and Gary's on the line from Sacramento.

GARY: Hi. I was going to say that, with the exception of the monetary fine, the punishments would seem to be more meant to distance Penn State for a while from the Holy Grail that is football. And isn't that the - isn't the idea that football is some sort of Holy Grail or promised land really the warped culture that the NCAA should have been addressing - not just Penn State, but at all schools where football is considered sacred?

CONAN: You'd have to go to basketball, as well. Men's basketball, in any case. But...

GARY: True, but they're just games, and can't - shouldn't the NCAA try to be stressing that they are just games?

PESCA: Well, Mark Emmert, the president of NCAA, did that explicitly, saying things like Penn State can focus on the work of rebuilding its athletic culture, not worrying about whether or not it's going to a bowl game. And they talked about - he talked about and the Freeh report explicitly talks about - at length rethinking the culture, reprioritizing education and nurturing young people above the sport. I do know that the one thing Mark Emmert in his remarks didn't talk about is the role of money in all of this, because he has the fiduciary responsibility to oversee the NCAA. And so that was left off the table.

But at least in words and the actions in this one case, they were aiming directly at everything the caller's talking about: how football has, you know, taken on a perverse and warped and outsized place in some of our universities.

CONAN: Gary, thanks very much.

GARY: OK.

CONAN: Some people will say, Mike, exactly what NCAA rule did Penn State violate?

PESCA: One rule, and it's a RICO-like statute. And you're right. I mean, they don't write the rules to foresee that there'll be a child molester within your midst. But it's the rule of institutional control. There is no institutional control. And I say it's a RICO-like statute, because that can mean anything. But because of that rule, I don't think many people dispute that the NCAA had a right to somehow go in and levy some penalties.

There are many people - Penn State backers, mostly - who do not like the fact that this was done basically at the heed of Mark Emmert and perhaps just a few people. It was not the usual due process that the NCAA engages in. But you know what? That dues process often takes a long, long time. And that would not have been a suitable response, the NCAA feels, for this crime - crime of this magnitude and this importance.

CONAN: Indeed. That process can - some thought glaciers would return to State College, Pennsylvania before the NCAA acted, but this has jumpstarted that entire process. Essentially, the NCAA took the Freeh report - Penn State's own commission report - and said, OK. If these are the facts, we're going to act on them.

PESCA: I think that's very significant, because in most cases, the NCAA has a very weak investigative and judicial arm. And we have seen time and time again when there is a big investigation into improprieties. It's because a news outlet has started that investigation. It's a little unfair. You know, there's going to be a lot more reporters pouring over what Ohio State does than maybe what the Ohio Bobcats do - not to impugn the Ohio Bobcats.

But it just seems like the - usually, the NCAA is not in a position to do a report that is as thorough as the report run by former FBI director Louis Freeh that gets as many people to talk on the record. And so I don't know that it would be proper to say, oh, this is a new era in NCAA investigation, because they're not going to have the funding and they're not going to have the means to put together as authoritative a report as the Freeh report is.

CONAN: Here's an email from Tony in Portland, Oregon: While I can appreciate the monetary punishment directed against Penn State, I cannot quite wrap my mind around the forfeiture of wins. Coach Sandusky, Paterno and the other administrators involved are responsible for what transpired. But taking away all those victories punishes all those many Penn State football players who gave four years of their life to serve an institution on the football field in pursuit of excellence few ever attained. I hate to see players punished for the actions of their superiors.

PESCA: Well, one former Penn State player said, wait. You're telling me that all those games on the sidelines were - show the Penn State had a higher score than its opponent, that didn't happen? That's the thing about vacating wins. The players felt like you won. Everyone celebrated. People know what a win was and what a loss was. But the reason that they took away the wins is because it's one of the things the NCAA does. It also busts Joe Paterno down from the all-time winningest coach and Division I to some place, I think, fifth on the list. They subtract 111 wins.

I'm of a couple of minds on this. I think you can make the argument that the NCAA was a little bit self-serving in taking away the wins. Now we don't have to look at that NCAA record book and see the name Joe Paterno up there. Perhaps the NCAA - as an institution, as opposed to Penn State - perhaps they're more comfortable with saying, you know, Joe Paterno, we don't have to look at that name on the list, and every time we do, think about all the horrible deeds. Then again, vacating the wins is - doesn't really have any cost, and it does make a little bit of a statement.

CONAN: Some also pointed out that Penn State took down Joe Paterno's statue, but will keep his name and that of his wife on the library for which they donated so much money.

PESCA: Well, let's not do an entire 180 on Joe Paterno's legacy. He was a great coach, and he really did believe in education, more so than he had to. And the learning part of his legacy - giving to the library, I mean - that was true. So I don't see that as bad as you think he might have acted or not acted or his nonfeasance in this case was, you know, the Paterno name on the library did mean something. And at some point, you know, this is an institution of higher learning. You have to grapple with your history, good and bad. So a statue says one thing: This is a heroic man who we should all honor. The name on the library maybe says something else.

CONAN: With us is Mike Pesca, NPR sports correspondent, at our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And let's go next to Peter, and Peter's with us from Wenatchee, in Washington.

PETER: Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PETER: So, I mean, I think I'm (unintelligible) in the fact that I think that this really unfairly punishes student athletes financially and kind of cynically shows that the NCAA is more about financial considerations than anything else. But really, my question is more like: since this scandal was really implemented at a higher level (unintelligible) within the university, I mean, by this president, what do we do? Do we punish - like, how do we punish the executives that are involved, beyond due process of law? I mean, by this standard, it seems that we should do something like dissolve or limit the university for four years.

CONAN: Well, Mike, I was interested by one thing that head of the NCAA, Mark Emmert said, and that's the NCAA reserves the right to go after individuals, here.

PESCA: Yeah. And I'm not sure exactly what that means. And also, he's not going to supersede the court cases that are pending against some of the former Penn State executives - obviously, not the late Joe Paterno, but the former athletic director, and so forth.

CONAN: Peter, though, I was interested - you said penalizes the students monetarily. How?

PETER: Well, I mean, it really puts all the athletic teams at Penn State in jeopardy, not just football. And for financial reasons, I think $6 million is a ton of money for an athletic program. And given the financial state of state schools, it, you know, it's obviously terrible. But, you know, it's a question of whether or not the Penn State athletic program can survive that's really constructive. And that seems to me to unfairly punish people who aren't even involved with the football program at all, like people who run track or play basketball, or what have you.

PESCA: Well, in the Q and A session, this was posed to him, and he - Mark Emmert was explicit that this is not to take any funding away from any of the other programs at Penn State, and Penn State will have to find the money from its general fund or somewhere else, and it can't come from other programs.

PETER: Yes. But that's exactly the point, is that it's a question of whether or not that money actually exists. And now that there's this increased imposed financial hardship from - basically, limiting the football team's ability to make money through these scholarship reductions (unintelligible). I mean, you'd have to be pretty naive to think that that's not going to severely affect the athletic program, generally, going forward, no?

PESCA: Well, you know, I think that you could also make the case, maybe, over the next five years. Penn State reinvents itself as a basketball school. They become Indiana or something. I mean, some other sports, maybe, get some spotlight and some place in the sun.

CONAN: Mark - Peter, thank you very much for the call.

PETER: OK. Thanks.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Shannon, Shannon with us from Oxford, Pennsylvania.

SHANNON: Yeah, Neal, thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to say as a resident of Pennsylvania and someone who has grown up in the shadow of Penn State football, I think the NCAA's actions were really appropriate. But what I wish they would have taken into consideration or perhaps done was to earmark some of that penalty money specifically to child sexual abuse prevention here in Pennsylvania, as opposed to nationwide, simply because the victims in this particular case were the young men from Pennsylvania. We are the state that will deal with the fallout. And frankly, because Penn State is a partially state-funded school, I think the citizens of the commonwealth deserves some of that back.

CONAN: What do we know about this fund, Mike?

PESCA: Well, I don't think we know a lot about the fund. And I was always of the opinion that Penn State itself would take the lead, perhaps using this as an opportunity to become the leading center on the study of child sexual abuse and the various pathologies involved.

It brings to mind a further question: The president of Penn State says he's onboard with all of these penalties. The head coach says he's not resigning. He understood what he was getting into. I wonder how much of these penalties were done not over the objections of Penn State's president, but maybe because of Penn State's president himself tried to impose a whole bunch of very harsh penalties, there'd be an outcry from alum and an outcry from some of the backers, financial backers. So maybe this takes it off the president's plate.

But to circle back to the question, I don't know a lot about specifically what's going to happen with this - how the funds will be used other than it was said to be used in a foundation.

CONAN: Shannon...

SHANNON: And my - speaking to your comment about, you know, becoming a center for education, I think that would be a great way to balance the fact that the Paterno name should remain on that library. As you said, you can't eliminate - you know, completely change the legacy, but perhaps find a way to use that for good.

PESCA: Yeah. Penn State is a big, rich school. The last statistics I have say that their general funds are $1.88 billion. So they could weather some of these hits and perhaps do what you're saying, fund some research.

CONAN: Let's wait for the civil cases to be filed and adjudicated. But Shannon, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. And Mike Pesca, thanks very much. And next time, I guess, we'll be hearing from you, you can get past this story and get on to the Olympic Games.

PESCA: Yes. I'll be in London soon.

CONAN: All right, Mike. Have a great time.

PESCA: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR sports correspondent, Mike Pesca, with us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, the expanding fallout from the euro crisis. Join us for that conversation. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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