Death Penalty May Have Hurt Penn State Less

When the Joe Paterno statue was taken down outside Beaver Stadium on Penn State’s campus Sunday, a small portion of the recent scandal’s visibility was also removed. No longer would people be able to gaze upon a symbol whose new meaning is deception and human indecency.

But sanctions handed out to Penn State this morning ensured that the football program will continue to serve as a public reminder of those horrible acts conducted by Jerry Sandusky and the subsequent cover up by Penn State officials.

NCAA President Mark Emmert announced that Penn State will be penalized with a $60 million fine, a four-year football postseason ban and vacation of all wins since 1998. The school also must reduce its number of scholarships from 25 to 15 per year for four years.

It was a harsh penalty, but it wasn’t the death penalty. That would have meant football at Penn State would have been suspended completely for up to four years.

During the announcement this morning, Emmert said that the death penalty would have hurt too many innocent people. “Suspension of the football program would bring with it significant unintended harm to many who had nothing to do with this case. The sanctions we have crafted are more focused and impactful than that blanket penalty.”

Many believe that Penn State got lucky in not receiving the death penalty. But I’m not so sure. These sanctions may actually be more impactful than the death penalty when it comes to the football program and public perception of the university. Penn State must now endure the “living-death penalty.”

With these actions, the NCAA is doing more than just keeping the football program from playing in the postseason and limiting recruiting and finances. These sanctions will keep the football program in full view of public scrutiny as it carries out its sentence. It is a public shaming stemming from the infamy that Penn State officials brought on themselves. The Nittany Lion will be shut into the stockade and the world will decide whether or not to let the tomatoes fly.

If the football program was completely shut down for a few years, the talk of Penn State football in any media capacity would die off quickly. There would be no football to speak of. Beaver stadium would be empty every Saturday and no one would feel the usual buzz in the air of a fall day in Happy Valley. Maybe this scenario of talking about nothing would work in a plot line of Seinfeld, but not for the national media. It would be an unsettling quietness, but it would be quiet nonetheless.

Then in a few years, Penn State would return to playing football and recruiting players like it always has. It would be a rebirth of football in State College, rising from the ashes and establishing a new identity forged in the absence of football. Their difficult sentence would be over and a new page would turn, helping people to forget about the previous chapters written before it.

The death penalty would have meant a fresh start eventually.

Instead, Penn State will begin a four-year span of meaningless football and public scrutiny. There will be no break from media analysis for the football program. There will be no fresh starts. There will be no bowl games, no Big Ten Championships and no hope to make the NCAA playoff when it begins in 2014. But there will be plenty of time each Saturday for broadcasters to talk about the events leading to the current situation. Viewers at home and at Penn State games will witness the walking-dead Nittany Lions carry out their penalty every week of the season. Talk may die down as time goes on, but the scandal will always be the 800-pound gorilla in Beaver Stadium.

Public perception of Penn State football won’t be helped by a mediocre team, either. With the loss of scholarships and inability to play for Big Ten Championships, National Championships and bowl games, the talent wells for Happy Valley are bound to hit drought conditions. Elite players won’t want to come to Penn State to play for nothing. These young men will play for Penn State’s competition and make the Nittany Lions’ road to success on the field that much harder.

The football team will be bled to death slowly for the next four years and beyond as fewer and fewer top recruits commit. A team of walk-ons just won’t win many games. In the coming years, Penn State will set a different precedent besides the sanctions imposed against them: Never in college football history will such a pedestrian team get so much media attention.

But public perception and sanctions aside, I believe Penn State will recover from this someday. The next decade will be an uphill crawl for everyone who represents the university – the football team, students, alumni and fans (myself included). Success with honor may not have meant anything to Jerry Sandusky, Joe Paterno and other Penn State brass, but it still means something to the rest of us and it’s our duty not to forget what happened while still moving on to set a new standard of excellence.

Football at Penn State will be relevant some day in the future, but it will be the most publicly scrutinized return to relevance in the history of college football.

About Pete Dombrosky
Pete is a graduate of Penn State University and a life-long Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fan. He covered men's hockey, golf, tennis, swimming and the enterprise beat as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State's award-winning, independent student-operated paper. He currently serves as the Managing Editor for Thrillist Media Group (

25 Responses to Death Penalty May Have Hurt Penn State Less

  1. I can’t even imagine how it would feel to be part of this community — being from a college football town myself, I can relate to how fundamental football is to our culture.

    But more than that, I can’t imagine how it would feel to be personally impacted by this man’s actions — and all of those who were wrapped up in the aftermath. My heart goes out to the victims…

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  2. Tim Shey says:

    I have always enjoyed watching Penn State football–I believe it will recover someday. Hopefully, other athletic programs will learn from what has happened here and not turn a blind eye when other people are being abused.

    At least, Penn State fans can cheer for Cael Sanderson and the Penn State wrestling program, which is one of the best in the nation. Cael and Company have won two national titles in the three years he has been the head coach at Penn State.

  3. The Smile Scavenger says:

    My partner’s brother is a recent grad. He and his friends used to be so proud and so carefree. Lately, they all seem so sad and defeated. I hate that the students are impacted. I hate that nobody wins.

  4. coconutspeak says:

    I truly believe that Penn State will survive these sanctions. NCAA needed to send a message. The innocent are far more important than hero worshipping or saving face. Paterno and Penn State brass should have served as leaders of the lynch mob against Sandusky. These sanctions are meant to hurt like hell so that no one forgets. As a survivor of sexual abuse, I can say that my sanctions don’t go away. And every boy that was victimized is forever altered because of this great injustice. If I had witnessed a child being raped, I would beat the attacker within an inch of his life with my bare hands, then dial 911. I feel bad for Penn State. I sob and pray for the victims.

  5. Kate Rawlins says:

    Pete ~ Living-Death Penalty ~ I agree. Coconutspeak ~ I would have helped you.

  6. Rob G says:

    I have to respectfully disagree, I dont think the sanctions went far enough. I think the people that knew, and did not report, should be brought up on criminal conspiracy charges. I think the program should have been shut down completely as well. Erasing wins is largely a symbolic gesture, and does not really change the past. The fact is the wins were wins and nothing can change that. 60 million in fines is steep at an initial glance, but the football team probably brings that much in revenue into the Universities accounts in a year. When compared to the lives that Sandusky ruined with the help of Paterno and the board…it really seems like a hollow gesture to me.

  7. It’s going to be tough for everyone..

  8. jdgarner says:

    Bull….The football organization is not responsible for what that man did..this is a public fiasco that people like you like to come in and feel all self righteous about. What the man did is bad, and he wen to court and recieved a doomed sentence. Everything else is everybody trying to jump into the spotlight. What’s some great high school quaterback coming up in Penn State football have to do with a crirminal who did something he’s got nothing to do with?

  9. tokogabe says:

    It’s going to be tough for everyone

  10. ghifary says:

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  11. Jose M. López says:

    You can’t know how impressed we are in Europe when noticed about that. Really bad be part of football now

  12. As a Penn State fan, I think I agree with your ideas here. Perhaps a complete death penalty would have worked, for even one season or two. This 4-year walking dead sentence is going to be devastating to the past and current INNOCENT players, students, and football fans of Penn State. The media is criminal also to an extent in their judgements and presentations, and I fear for the team’s reception when they do go off to play another team. Which brings me to another question? Who the hell are they going to play? With walk-ons, since any decent players are surly going to opt out and go somewhere else, they won’t stand a chance against those Big 10 teams! I’m from the Wilkes-Barre area and we have a running joke this week saying “it looks like Penn State will be playing Wilkes University, or King’s College” Or, for extra cruel jabs, maybe Berwick high school’s football team.
    It is sad that they will not be able to get a fresh start from this. I never imagined that this would happen, that there would be penalties brought against the university and the football team. To me it seems that this should have been decided legally, with penalties to those involved. What one low-life creep, and a bunch of stupid people in high positions can do…it astounds me. Now thousands of students are suffering.

  13. There is so much to this issue and I’m glad it wasn’t my job to pass an official verdict. I appreciate your insights and hope.

  14. I am of the opinion that the sanctions are extreme enough but they punish the wrong people. They punish the Penn State students and the community members. None of whom knew anything about the travesty that was the treachery of Jerry Sandusky. I say put permanent bans on the administration that helped cover this up. Fire all those involved and anyone to be found guilty of helping with the cover up bar them from any association with the NCAA. The punishment is a just sentence its just misdirected.

  15. Michael says:

    I think you completely miss the point! This is not about football. This is about an institution’s culture that is more obsessed with protecting images (of the University, the program, the storied coach…) than with doing the right, decent, human thing. This is about an institution that did a risk analysis that protected villians and allowed for children to be put at risk of victimization of sexual crimes. This was about money, power and prestige. This was about an administration and coaching staff that was devoid of honor and lacked the decency to safeguard a child’s welfare.

    You people are worried about a fresh start for the football program? Get your eye on the ball! Those children targeted by Sandusky don’t get a fresh start! They carry the damage for life.

    Penn State needs to atone for it’s complicity in the crimes committed against children. If your thoughts are focused on whether the team will bounce back in four years or where the statue of Joe Paterno should end up you have already lost the bubble.

    Unless the University culture of Penn State is changed so that nothing like this can happen in Happy Valley again and that a true era of transparency and honesty take hold, this institution will remain, in the eyes of many, a life support system for a football program. Given the cloak and dagger operation that moved the statue of Joe Paterno last weekend, I don’t hold much hope out for the change to take hold.

    In the interest of full disclosure, I was a victim of sexual abuse at the age of 13 in Pennsylvania and I have a family connection to Penn State.

  16. sweetsound says:

    I read elsewhere that shutting down the football program completely would have hurt the economy of the surrounding community and businesses. I’m not familiar with the area though.

    It sucks that the students and other innocent community members have to suffer because of the actions of those in power – but with power comes responsibility, and they failed to live up to theirs, thus hurting everyone.

    Most especially the direct victims of the abuse. Like others are saying, their sanctions will never go away.

  17. TJ Johnston says:

    I must disagree with the notion that the “students and community” will suffer under the NCAA’s punishment. Essentially, college athletes represent a different university than a school’s general student body. While the program will be penalized and lose money, Penn State’s students are, at best, marginally affected by the team’s fortunes and sorrows.

  18. Feit Can Write says:

    This is a really good piece, and I agree with the “slow death” concept. As a fellow Big Ten member, I’ve given my own $0.02 on the punishment here:

  19. iRuniBreathe says:

    Great analysis. While I read about the story in the media, I appreciate your local/fan perspective on this. I agree that the “living-death” penalty will be much more effective; it will be remembered for the impact and hurt caused.

  20. Excellent post – saw you on “freshly pressed”. I’m gonna think of this every time they put Penn State on Sports Center – which, like you said, is going to be every Saturday.

  21. J-Dub says:

    The “Death Penalty” was never a realistic option because it likely would have resulted in lawsuits from both Penn State and the local business owners who depend on football fans. The NCAA got in on the piling on, and managed to grab a nice $60 million payday for itself in the process. If I am to believe the NCAA in it’s blather about the victims, then where were they when these allegation surfaced on multiple occasions before 2011?

    I have far more detailed thoughts on this, and a very interesting discussion of this matter at

  22. lsurrett2 says:

    Yes, by all means, let’s forget about children being raped and molested. As if it never happened. Yes, let’s not learn a lesson from using deception and college politics to bury (and basically condone) the actions of a predator.

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