At Penn State, whom is the NCAA punishing?
For sexual abusers and their protectors in Pennsylvania, it’s been a summer of reckoning. The sentence for Msgr. Lynn was announced today. Last month Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of heinous crimes at Penn State. Others directly involved in the Penn State scandal have lost their careers and their credibility, and some may have criminal charges of perjury forthcoming. For their crimes, prosecutors will no doubt seek the fullest punishment allowable under the law — and rightfully so.
That’s what’s happening in the criminal justice system. So far, the guilty have been and will be tried and convicted.
But in the alternate reality of the NCAA, it’s not the guilty who are being punished. Rather, the entire Pennsylvania State University, and in some ways, the economy of the region, have been hammered with shocking sanctions by the NCAA. I would never presume to have moral clarity on the unprecedented crimes and cover-ups at Penn State, and more details are sure to come to light in the future. But today what does seem clear is that the NCAA has punished thousands of innocent people through economic sanctions.
Through the unprecedented $60 million fine, the 4-year postseason (bowl) ban, the scholarship reductions, and the freedom for students to transfer immediately and play elsewhere (without the customary one-year waiting period for transfer athletes), the NCAA has ensured that Penn State will lose football games. The NCAA wanted Penn State to lose on the field for years to come, and they will.
That’s not what bothers me, though. If Penn State loses to Temple on the field, no one but their diehard fans will care. What bothers me is that the NCAA’s punishments — and recall that no NCAA rules were broken by Penn State — are endangering the entire institution and its local economy. Big-time college football is a major revenue generator for large public research universities, the same universities that have received substantial budget cuts in recent years due to states’ financial crises. Beyond the basic numbers of lost revenue for home games, merchandise, TV contracts through the conference, and bowl revnues, college football is far and away the largest source of alumni loyalty and financial contributions at such universities. As Kristi Dosh runs the numbers at ESPN.com, the alumni giving rates at peer institutions are tied to football at a stunning rate: Michigan (80%); Ohio State (86%); Florida (94%). At Penn State’s closest peer, 86% of alumni giving is in some way tied to football.
There are purists about higher education who want to wish these numbers away, but the facts are the facts. Yes, we have our University of Chicago, which nobly disbanded football in pursuit of truth (or at least its social construction). Yes, we have our liberal arts colleges which cling more tightly to those past ideals of renaissance men and women of ideas, sport, and leisure. But at many large public universities, which do most of our educating, college football revenues pay for lots of other things: all the other sports, which run significantly in the red; faculty research facilities and budgets; capital expenses, such as new educational buildings; and more. Much of the credit-worthiness of institutions such as Penn State depends on successful generation of revenue through football, which is why Moody’s warned this morning that it may lower Penn State’s credit rating. If that happens, and Penn State wants to build a new biology building, it will come with a higher interest rate and add to the already balooning long-term costs of these crimes.
The local economy will also suffer, which uses its 6 or 7 precious home football weekends to generate the tourism revenue that keeps small businesses afloat for the rest of the year. If the fans don’t come, some of the hotels, bed and breakfasts, restaurants, and stores may need to close.
In conclusion, along with Michael Weinreb at Grantland, I’m not sure “whether this litany of punishments lends any sort of moral structure to a situation that is entirely devoid of it, or it just piles another useless layer onto a patchwork of ethical failures.” But moral structure or not, it seems to me that the punishments do not affect those who perpetrated and covered up the crimes, but they certainly harm several concentric circles that surround the football program at Penn State. The criminal justice system has and will punish the criminals. The NCAA has decided to punish everyone else.