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.

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