As the dust from the NCAA’s ruling on the Penn State child sex abuse scandal begins to settle, the focus seems to be on whether the penalty the NCAA imposed on Penn State — a $60 million fine, a scholarship reduction, and a four-year postseason ban — is too harsh. The answer is that it isn’t harsh enough. There shouldn’t be any football played at Beaver Stadium this year. The NCAA should have given the Nittany Lion football program the so-called “death penalty” to deter other schools from doing what Penn State did: covering up a scandal in order to protect an athletic program.
NCAA President Mark Emmert had the death penalty in his back pocket but elected to keep it there. Perhaps he feared that he didn’t have the authority to impose it on Penn State, that to do so would be a step too far. Perhaps he genuinely felt that the fine, scholarship reduction, and postseason ban constituted a just punishment. Or perhaps he couldn’t allow Penn State to lose all that football revenue. Whatever the reason for his decision, every university in the country now understands that it can walk away from a cover-up relatively unscathed. After all, if covering up more than a half-dozen cases of sexual abuse isn’t enough to warrant the death penalty, what is? Sure, if they’re caught, schools will have to cough up some dough, lose some scholarships, and maybe miss a bowl or two, but when the bean counters add it up, the bottom of the ledger sheet will show that the rewards outweigh the risks every time, especially considering what big-time football programs like Penn State’s bring in from TV contracts, merchandise, and concessions. Besides, schools might not even get caught.
I realize that the NCAA is reluctant to hand out the death penalty after SMU’s experience with it 25 years ago. SMU’s football program has never been the same since the NCAA cancelled its 1987 season and all of its home games the following year. Since then, the NCAA has had many opportunities to impose the death penalty on programs, but has declined to do so — well, except for notoriously corrupt programs like the 2003 Morehouse College men’s soccer team and the 2005 MacMurray College men’s tennis team. Remember the national debate about what should happen to those programs? Of course you don’t; nobody does unless they went to one of those schools. In fact, those programs’ greatest sin may have been being small. It’s easy to step on an ant, but the bigger bugs have a way of surviving all but the harshest measures.
In 1920, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis became the first commissioner of baseball. Gamblers had fixed the 1919 World Series, and Landis’s first task was to address the sport’s gambling problem. He had no precedent to fall back on; all he had was a vision of what he needed to do to preserve the game. So he kicked eight players out of baseball forever for their involvement in the scandal. Forever. And that group included Joe Jackson, the third-greatest hitter of all time. By doing so, Landis made it clear to everyone else in the game: Do this and you’re gone, and I don’t care who you are. In the following years, gamblers lost their influence on baseball, and the sport flourished.
If Mark Emmert were a bigger fan of baseball history, he might have hit a home run for college sports on Monday. Instead, he just made a very loud out.
Marc Sterne is the long-time sidekick “Nigel” on “The Tony Kornheiser Radio Show.” He’s been in radio for over 15 years — primarily in Washington, D.C. — working in music, sports, and news talk. He’s also a standup comedian.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to NCAA President Mark Emmert as Mike Emmert.