The NCAA has announced sanctions on Penn State that are unprecedented in their harshness: fining the school $60 million, banning it from bowl games for four years, and vacating all its wins from 1998 to 2012. The Wall Street Journal has the story.
No one believes more strongly than I in punishment for wretched behavior, and the behavior of Penn State's assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was as wretched as it gets, save only for murder. But for the wrongly decided Kennedy v. Louisiana, he would and should be eligible for the death penalty.
That said, today's NCAA action seems all wrong to me, for several reasons. First, it does nothing to punish the main actor, Sandusky, who's in jail and will almost certainly remain there for the rest of his life. Second, it diffuses Sandusky's responsibility by spreading the blame to the football program. But the program -- and, indeed, football -- had only a quite indirect connection to the crime. Indeed, I have not seen any evidence, or even a suggestion, that a single Penn State football player so much as knew what Sandusky was up to. Yet it is the players and, more broadly, Penn State students and alumni, who will be hurt most by today's action.
The argument is that those above Sandusky, in particular Coach Paterno and the University's then-President, should have exercised what the NCAA calls "institutional control." Assuming arguendo the legitimacy of that gossamer concept as applied in this extremely unusual context (sex crimes by an assistant coach), it is still unpersuasive. Paterno is dead, and the University President got fired months ago. Who's left to take the brunt of this?
Punishment is all to the good when directed at those responsible, but punishing those who aren't deflects our focus on the real culprit and dilutes the moral authority to punish at all.