Will the Penn State Sanctions Work?

Murray Sperber on why the NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State won’t work in the long run.

Since the publication of the Freeh Report, colleagues and students at the University of California, Berkeley, where I teach, have asked me how the cover-up at Penn State that Freeh describes could have occurred. I reply that if they had ever lived in an isolated college town like State College, Pennsylvania, or Bloomington, Indiana, where I lived for thirty years during the reign of Bob Knight as men’s basketball coach, they would have some insight into what occurred at Penn State.

In such towns, a dominant college sports program, particularly one like Paterno’s and Knight’s that wins national championships and attracts fame and fortune to the university, becomes the focus of extraordinary attention and pride. And if the coach of the team is charismatic, as were Joe Paterno and Bob Knight, then that coach can become almost omnipotent, immune to criticism and certainly immune to reprimand, no matter what the crime, from any authority within the university, including the president.

(At this point, the analogy between Paterno and Knight ends: Although I dislike Knight and his methods, I do not believe for a millisecond that, if someone had informed Knight his top assistant coach had done what Sandusky did in the showers to a child, he would have ignored the charges.)

The question now, in the wake of the NCAA sanctions handed down this week against Penn State, is whether the culture of the omnipotent college coach—and the worshipping university community—has been brought to a halt in Happy Valley. Were the NCAA’s sanctions severe enough to stop Penn State administrators from deferring to charismatic coaches in the future?

I wish the answer were yes, but I’m not so sure. Shutting down the football program for a year, even two or three, would have definitely separated the Paterno past and lingering present from the future. The current penalties, albeit very deep, will allow the program and remnants of the Paterno culture to continue. I am fairly certain that during the next few years sports fans will read stories on how “Plucky Penn State, 21 point underdogs to Purdue, upset the Boilermakers,” and so on. And some Penn State person will crow, “The NCAA can’t banish the ghost of JoePa.” I do not look forward to the saga of Plucky Penn State, nor do I feel that the NCAA penalties sufficiently separate the future from the past culture of that school.

One of my colleagues at Berkeley, history professor David Hollinger, disagrees. He sent me an email shortly after the NCAA’s announcement arguing that canceling Penn State’s football season would have unfairly affected the teams they were slated to compete against. He also wrote: “The forfeiture of all those victories, the downsizing of the scholarship program, and loss of post-season play—this will indeed knock them out of contention.” It’s a fair point. And it’s certainly true that Penn State will not win the newly created college football playoff championship game any time soon—which will rankle its fans. But as long as the team is able to take the field and win games, the culture of football-worship at Penn State can continue—which raises the possibility that, in a few years time, university administrators will once again find themselves deferring to a successful, charismatic coach.

Given that the NCAA has made its decision, is there any remaining way to prevent the same culture from re-emerging at Penn State in the future? My colleague suggests that the goal of any punishment should be “to force Penn State to live with the legacy of the crimes committed there.” I agree: This is the best way to permanently change Penn State’s culture. To that end, one option would be for the school to take the statue of Paterno out of hiding and put it back on display. As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently proposed in The New York Times, Penn State could leave the statue in a prominent location on campus and turn it into a monument to Paterno’s failures—perhaps by surrounding it on three sides with walls upon which are engraved key quotes from the Freeh Report. Alternatively, Penn State could decide to voluntarily forego football for a year, thereby making a clear break with the past. But whatever it decides to do, Penn State must now take responsibility for ending the culture of the charismatic coach—because the NCAA sanctions won’t be enough.