Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Imperial Overreach

by Ryan Fleming

Photo courtesy of twittweb.com

Yesterday, the NCAA handed down unprecedented sanctions against Penn State in response to the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal that erupted into the national spotlight last November. Penn State was fined $60 million, banned from postseason play or Bowl Games for four years, scholarships were cut for four years, and all wins from 1998-2011 have been vacated, in addition to other probationary and reform requirements.

The ruling, in the eyes of this PSU alum, demonstrates the fine line between justice and vengeance – more specifically, the ease with which that line is transgressed. The effectiveness and appropriateness of a given punishment can be measured by its ability to target the responsible parties, prompt meaningful change, and benefit victims. The $60 million fine is one punitive measure the NCAA took that I think makes perfect sense and is poetic in its justice: the funds equal a year of football revenue and go to benefit victims of child abuse.

The rest, in my view (and I speak only for myself), is partially overblown or wholly wrongheaded, for various reasons. Penn State is banned from Bowl Games or postseason appearances for not one, two, or even three, but four years. This ensures that no one currently playing at Penn State, including the entire incoming class (unless you go from incoming freshman next month to super-senior), has any hope of competing or distinguishing themselves. Similarly, they gutted the scholarship program for the next four years, which does not an iota of good to any abuse victim while effectively bombing the entire program into the Stone Age for the better part of a decade. I understand the symbolic value of a one-year postseason ban, for purposes of reflection and reform. I don’t think slashing scholarships is ever a good idea. Four years of each is draconian, power-play posturing. Most notably, it helps absolutely no one affected while punishing athletes, would-be athletes, fans, students, alumni, staff, and the entire community – none of whom were involved or implicated in the scandal, excepting those few men who have been exposed and ostracized from the PSU community for their crimes and cover-ups.

Vacating wins from 1998 is downright laughable: the argumentative gymnastics that are taking place to justify literally rewriting history to torpedo the records and careers of uninvolved coaches and players shows a level of inspiration in its unfairness and ineffectuality. Again, supporters of this brand of nuclear punishment crow that it’s “symbolic,” thinking that a particular punishment’s symbolism correlates with its appropriateness. Under this line of thought, demolishing the stadium would be even more appropriate, for being all the more symbolic. I see the rationale for targeted, limited, symbolic punishment, but a theory un-tempered by the constraints of reason devolves into madness.

The worst and most insidious result of this punishment is that it reinforces the media-driven public perception that all of Penn State is guilty; that all of Penn State helped in the cover up; that nobody at Penn State cares about kids. Everyone knows that some kids overturned a news truck in State College when Paterno got fired; no one remembers the candlelight vigil for the victims that transpired the next night. No one remembers THON, the record-breaking charity event that raises millions upon millions of dollars for children’s cancer research every year.1 Which says more about the values and traditions of Penn State? Or, if you prefer, let me reword the question: how can you form an honest assessment about Penn State without taking a view that starts before November 2011?

The grand narrative now is how Penn State has no balance between athletics and academics, whereas the truth is that Penn State leads the entire nation in athlete graduation rates and is unique in displaying no performance gap between white and black athletes.2 These are inconvenient facts for those who have descended on Penn State like Pharisaical locusts, each intent on out-doing the other in terms of how strongly they disapprove of the Sandusky scandal, each ready to heap on the most made-for-TV scorn, each bidding for the heaviest hand.

Those who know me well know that I am not a JoePa bobble head blind to reality. Likewise, I am not counted amongst the ranks of those whom I genuinely feel want to see an entire University destroyed and would favor razing the entire campus to the ground. As someone who spent time there, knows the university, and knows the community, I have developed my views as heretofore explained. My thoughts and prayers are for the victims of Jerry Sandusky and the handful of people who knowingly concealed his crimes, and they always have been. From firing Paterno and Spanier days after the scandal broke to uprooting the Paterno statue just yesterday, Penn State’s response has shown that it is as appalled by these atrocities as the rest of the world. President Erickson, in particular, whose hand I had the honor of shaking at graduation (the picture hangs on my wall next to my desk), has shown remarkable courage in his choices and faithful stewardship. He is a true leader, and that makes me hopeful for the road ahead.

I have given several family and friends Penn State paraphernalia over the last year or so, especially clothing, in the hopes that they would wear it with pride in my admission to this world-class institution, my decision to persevere when academic and personal life changes made it easier to walk away, and my success in graduating from a prestigious program and joining the ranks of the largest and greatest alumni association in the world. If they choose now to look at these gifts and see Jerry Sandusky instead of me, I’ve asked them to send it back to me to wear myself since I, like 99.9% of my 500,000+ fellow Penn State alumni, have nothing to apologize for.

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