No Defending Penn State Or NCAA

Fans pack the stadium at a 2008 Penn State-Michigan game

I attended Penn State University from the fall of 2001 until the spring of 2005. I majored in journalism, minored in business and ended up having just about the best college experience I could have ever imagined.

Since then, I’ve returned with some of my best college friends and we’ve stayed over for a football weekend or turned back the clock during warm summer nights. I can’t exactly describe the feeling I get when my car reaches the outer limits of the campus and I see the haven I once called home, it has something of a time machine effect. For a minute, whatever is happening in my life seems to disappear and it takes a moment of actual thought for it to return.

The past nine months have been a complete shock to the system as what has become one of the worst scandals in college history began to take shape, culminating in the conviction of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky and last week’s football punishments levied by the NCAA. It’s been an absolute media onslaught which, while justifiable, has put my fellow Penn Staters and I on the defensive – certainly not defending anything that happened, but defending our memories, defending a part of our identity.

There’s a big difference between taking issue with how others label and treat a place that was once my home and condoning anything that went on at its highest levels of power, so I’d like to try to give you another perspective.

Before any of the sanctions were announced, the big debate was whether the statue of Joe Paterno should remain standing in front of Beaver Stadium. Now, I have no attachment to the statue, which went up in 2001. I’ve never had my picture taken with it and I won’t feel strange that it isn’t where it’s been for 11 years. What I do take issue with is the sense that anyone else had the right to determine its fate. Many a talking head clamored for it to come down, saying that the recently released Freeh Report gave undeniable data stating that Paterno was very much involved in the heinous coverup. I have issues with the Freeh Report, but that would take more space than I’m allotted, so I’ll stick to the reactions.

To me, this statue situation felt similar to someone speaking negatively about your family. You might actually agree with what they have to say, but who are they to say it? It was hard to figure out why so many people who had no connection to the school, and would very likely never even set foot on the campus, were so deeply emphatic in their remarks. I wasn’t even in favor of its remaining there, but I didn’t understand this public outcry about a statue.

The Washington Monument stands in our nation’s capital as a representative symbol of our democracy. Yet Washington was a slave owner for his entire life. Does the fact that it remains standing indicate America approves of slavery? Is there a public outcry for its removal because of obvious moral failures?

Paterno failed as a leader and as a man with power, but his statue was created by the school itself, and it alone should have been the sole voice in determining its fate. I was fine with its removal, but not the manner in which it happened.

Then the NCAA swooped in and handed down extremely harsh penalties in an unprecedented fashion. Watching the NCAA, of all organizations, talk about sanctity and integrity in such a grandiose manner made my skin crawl.

Instead of doing any investigating of its own, the NCAA used the Freeh Report as gospel, circumvented due process and fast-tracked a ruling that will cripple the Penn State football program for the foreseeable future. Not one NCAA violation was mentioned in its statement. Not one individual singled out in the Freeh Report even remains at Penn State. They didn’t hand down the “death penalty,” which would have eliminated football for at least a full season, but the sanctions they imposed are actually far worse.

The football team hasn’t been killed – it’s been buried alive.

No postseason play for four years, scholarships cut from 25 to 15 for four years and all the program’s wins obtained from 1998 to 2011 vacated. Oh, and a $60 million fine to be donated to charity. (I’m curious how much the NCAA will be donating to charity from the money it made broadcasting and selling PSU apparel for those 13 years.)

In this case, Penn State was made an example of, and not because it broke a single NCAA rule, but because it was the appropriate public relations move. It was made an example of in a way that the NCAA can still parade around its beaten soul for much of the next decade to say “See? See what we can do to you?”

Horrible things happened at Penn State. Men with great power failed in their moral obligations and failed to accept responsibility for their actions.

Yet the ones now facing the punishment had nothing to do with anything.

NCAA president Mark Emmert said the sanctions were necessary for a complete cultural overhaul within the Penn State football program, despite all guilty parties having already been fired, on their way to jail or dead. Just this past year, Penn State was ranked No. 1 in the nation by an independent study’s “Academic Bowl” that delved into all football graduation rates and academic achievement. Not a single punished individual was subject to a recruiting violation or has received illegal benefits. Aren’t many other college football cultures, to which these PSU players now have the opportunity to transfer, in far more disarray?

The NCAA overstepped here, and while it may be easy to brush it off and say “so what?” because of the heinous nature of what took place, it sets a dangerous precedent and gives an already two-faced body even more power to impose its questionable moral standing.

But it’s time for Penn State to move forward. It already seems resolved to do so, and many of the players, who would be completely justified in transferring to other schools, appear to be staying put. Apparently, they like the Penn State culture that Emmert is hoping to be rid of.

The next time I get to Happy Valley, that time machine feeling will be even more welcome than ever before, but the harsh reality of the present day will never be fully erased.