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Upon Further Review, Vacating Wins the Wrong Punishment for Penn State

by Jonah Rosenblum (@jonahlrosenblum)

More than a week has passed since the National Collegiate Athletic Association handed down its sweeping set of penalties against Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. In the days following, I tried to avoid writing this column, believing that the scandal had already received far too much attention, both in the sports section and elsewhere. But as unnecessary as the media blitzkrieg might be, this scandal stands at the threshold between morality and sports, and that is why it has held our attention for so long. It invades our comfort zones, and forces us to answer difficult questions about what we would have done in Joe Paterno's situation and what we ought to do now. And days after the penalties were handed down, I remain troubled by the NCAA’s decision to vacate 112 wins that eons of Nittany Lions players worked their rear ends off for.

I was at several of those Penn State wins, all at Northwestern's expense, that now stand null and void in the record books though never in my memory. And that is the futility of such a punishment. We still remember the games, whether the NCAA wants us to or not, just like we will always remember this scandal, whether the NCAA wants us to or not. No matter how steep the punishment, this incident will never go away — not completely anyway. Joe Paterno and college football remain forever linked, whether for good or for bad. And I will always think of Joe Paterno as the winningest coach in college football history, even if his place in Heaven is no longer reserved.

I think back on that first fall I spent covering Northwestern football. Midway through the 2010 season, the Wildcats, and the entire Daily Northwestern football staff, found ourselves in University Park as Northwestern eagerly sought a season-defining victory over Penn State. In what was a nationally televised contest, the Wildcats’ eagerness showed right away as they jumped out to a 21-0 lead, but I’ll never forget the way the Nittany Lions stormed back in front of a near-capacity crowd that was quite simply champing at the bit. Their blue jerseys and white helmets shining under the lights, the Nittany Lions began their comeback just before halftime and blew the Wildcats away in the second half to hand Joe Paterno his 400th win as a head coach. In retrospect, that was one of the last celebrations of Paterno’s career, before his reckless actions and flagrant disregard caught up with him. And yet, morality be darned, Penn State beat Northwestern that night. That win stands in my memory, if not in the record books. As Paterno told the press afterward, that win wasn't really about him, it was about the way his players fought back from a 21-point deficit. And now that achievement has been taken away from them.

If I were a Supreme Court justice, I would find no issue with the NCAA’s decision. After all, the operative concept in constitutional law is precedent, and the NCAA certainly had precedent to issue this type of ruling, even in the wake of such an unprecedented scandal. As Tom Ley dutifully noted for Deadspin, the list of college football teams with vacated wins runs far beyond the lonely hills of Happy Valley. This is hardly the first time an entire team has been punished for the malfeasance of one individual. Southern California had to vacate all 13 of its victories from its 2005 campaign because Reggie Bush decided to begin his professional career a little too early and Alabama had to vacate eight wins in 1993 due to its use of an ineligible player that season. More recently, Ohio State had to vacate a 12-1 campaign in 2010 due to the fact that several of its players dared trade memorabilia for tattoos, and coach Jim Tressel failed to report it. So, the tradition of punishing an entire team for the shaky actions of one or several individuals is longstanding within the NCAA.

Furthermore, the NCAA’s punishment makes sense from one moral perspective. It is certainly clear that Paterno acted reprehensibly in order to protect the sacred cow that was his football program in Happy Valley. He allowed myriad little boys to suffer in the grasp of a sex offender so that his football program might live and prosper. Thus, the NCAA was under a great deal of pressure to hit Penn State where it hurts. In other words, after Paterno spent years propping up his football program, using deceit to maintain its pristine appearance, the NCAA ought to destroy it.

Paterno’s actions, in part, helped keep Penn State’s football program profitable, and thus the association’s $60 million fine makes perfect sense. Paterno and his henchmen made good money by keeping Sandusky’s missteps a secret, and thus a monetary punishment would appear to be the perfect remedy. The $60 million fine, which represents one year of gross revenue from the football team, will go toward an endowment that will assist child sexual abuse victims. Taking away money that was earned through deceit and using it to help victims of sexual abuse is clearly a great step in the right direction. Cutting scholarships is another fairly efficent way to cripple a football program that thrived while innocent boys suffered at the hands of Jerry Sandusky for far too long. Given Paterno’s power in Happy Valley, and the fact that it was his power that helped keep Sandusky’s crimes a secret, it makes sense to reduce the football program’s power in future years. And by instituting a four-year postseason ban, the NCAA is making clear that Penn State was a black mark on college football. This penalty sends a stark message that any program that fails to abide by the most basic standards of morality will not be allowed to shine on college football’s brighest stages.

These initial acts all correctly punish an institution for its failures to turn in a dangerous sex offender. To a certain extent, they create more victims, namely those players currently at Penn State who will no longer be able to shoot for the Rose Bowl in coming years. But for the most part, they simply punish the institution, cutting into its pride and joy, after it sheltered a man who robbed so many of their innocence. These punishments are forward-looking, and for the most part, avoid collateral damage. Penn State’s scholarship money can be spent elsewhere, and there is no shortage of great schools at which promising high-school athletes can make their mark. On the other hand, vacating wins unfairly punishes hundreds of former football players who worked very hard to secure victory after victory for Penn State. It punishes standout athletes, who as far as I am concerned had absolutely nothing to do with what went on in the bowels of University Park. Being a college football player is hard work, and these athletes spent hours upon hours at practice, gave their lives to football, all so that they might emerge victorious on Saturday. Their work is unparalleled and it deserves to be recognized.

Strip Penn State of its money if you will. Those dollars surely would have subsided had the world known about what was going on behind the curtains. Strip Penn State of its scholarships so that a powerful program, once beyond all reproach, may understand the importance of answering to a higher power. Strip Penn State of its postseason chances, so that the university may understand that playing in the postseason is a privilege, earned off of the field as well as on. But don’t strip Penn State of its wins, because doing so robs players who rightfully earned those wins on the playing field. Those wins were fair. They weren’t aided by steroids or any other performance enhancers. They were earned between the sidelines and that’s where they ought to stay. The money belonged to the university. It certainly didn’t belong to the players. So, the NCAA can strip that. Even postseason opportunities belong to the institution. So strip those as well. But Penn State’s victories spanning more than a decade on the gridiron don’t belong, and never have belonged, to the university. They don’t belong to Joe Paterno either. They belong to his players, to a set of men who performed most valiantly on the football field. And it is to them that those 112 victories ought to be restored.

I’m not trying to gloss over Paterno’s sins off of the field. I’m just suggesting that glossing over Penn State’s successes on the field isn’t much better. An awful lot of players worked awfully hard to rack up those wins. And while Paterno’s actions certainly helped keep him on the field, or in the coaches’ box as it were, Penn State earned its victories on the gridiron. His players earned each and every win, and to take their wins away from them seems like cruel and unusual punishment. As far as I’m concerned, increase the fine levied against Penn State. Fine the university $100 million, not $60 million. Take away the Nittany Lions’ bowl eligibility for an entire decade, not four years. Send as strong a message against this type of behavior as you can. But don’t vacate those wins. Because injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, even, and perhaps especially when, it feels right. As good as it might feel to strip Penn State of all that it had, it’s simply not right to strip Paterno's players of their wins. We can no more forget those years of victories coming out of Happy Valley than we can forget the scandal that unhinged Penn State’s legacy.