The cloud is lifting on Penn State football, as the NCAA has announced plans to give the program back the scholarships that were taken away in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. The possibility of lifting a four-year bowl ban that began last season is also on the table. Both are moves that should be applauded, but they raise troublesome questions about not just the NCAA, but the media.
It’s been a little more than a year since NCAA president Mark Emmert announced the sanctions against Penn State. We should note that Penn State had violated no NCAA regulations, and this represented an unprecedented move by the organization into criminal matters. Some of us wondered then where it would end—if you start disciplining schools for criminal actions by those involved, you could literally go all day.
To pick a few examples off the top of my head, Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips assaulted his girlfriend in 1995. Not only were the Huskers not sanctioned, but Phillips led the way to a national title. Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy was murdered by a teammate in 2003. While sanctions were handed out against Baylor it was only because an investigation of the murder turned up violations of NCAA rules in the process.
And don’t even get me started on the hypocrisy surrounding the blind eye turned on Notre Dame, after head coach Brian Kelly sent a videographer up into a scissors lift to film practice on a brutally windy day in 2010—a day that had other coaches around the Midwest either moving indoors or just not filming their workouts—and the scissors left fell and killed the student.
Notre Dame and Kelly got off the hook because the kid’s parents were committed to the school and not the type of people to seek legal recourse (i.e., they were nice people), but it was an action certainly indicative of a football culture run amok, to borrow the charge casually thrown at Penn State.
But none of these, or any of the other countless criminal matters that have risen within college programs over the years should be subject to the NCAA. Not because they aren’t serious, but because they are. We have police and a court system to mete out justice for criminal conduct, and in the case of Penn State that justice was handed out to Sandusky. And if you hold the view—which I don’t—that those within the PSU athletic department were also culpable, that too, is a charge that falls under the purview of the courts.
The NCAA badly overstepped its bounds, and what’s more, there were people attempting to point this out at the time. But in the summer of 2012, to say anything nice about Penn State football—or even to suggest there were limitations on NCAA power—was considered synonymous with a defense of child abuse. Emmert played to the media crowd and took an action that was indefensible by any objective measure, including his organization’s own precedent with regard to criminal matters.
MEDIA MOB RULE
But if Emmert played to the crowd and appeased the mob, who were the ones stirring up the mob to begin with? That would be the national press. The same press that is today giving mostly approving nods to the NCAA’s decision to restore Penn State’s scholarships and bowl eligibility, behaved like a collective group of ranting lunatics in the aftermath of Sandusky’s crimes becoming public.
Some of us took the time to read the Freeh Report, as opposed to just taking its media-friendly soundbites at face value and its flaws were apparent. TheSportsNotebook ran a long discussion of that report in July 2012 and pointed out that the charges made against the Penn State athletic department in general, and Joe Paterno in particular, were without real evidence. The case against Paterno not only failed to meet the legal test of “beyond a reasonable doubt”, but it failed to meet the “preponderance of evidence” test applied in civil court, where a jury need only decide which side has brought more proof to bear.
But if you wanted to say all this in the summer of 2012, you were required to spend several paragraphs explaining that you were really against child abuse. The collective decision made by the national media to turn a serious exploration of Penn State’s guilt—or lack thereof—in the Sandusky case—into a referendum on whether or not one took child abuse seriously, amounted to mob rule.
Through the summer and fall of 2012, there were two items you could find regularly on ESPN/ABC—pundits pontificating snobbishly about how Penn State needed to clean up its football culture. And Penn State football games on TV. Apparently the network wasn’t above continuing to make money broadcasting the games, even as they declared the program and culture to be morally bankrupt. The hypocrisy remains astounding to this day.
So yes, it’s time to restore Penn State football’s scholarships and bowl eligibility. I understand that people can disagree with me on the question of Joe Paterno’s innocence while still supporting the restoration. But they should be reminded that supporting Penn State to any degree at all is an action that would have gotten them a media pounding little more than twelve months ago. Maybe the lesson in all this is that we shouldn’t make serious decisions about guilt or innocence until the media mob quiets down.