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Penn State Sanctions Worse Than 'Death Penalty'?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, before they made it big, most politicians started out small, and don't be confused. They had to work hard just to get there. We'll talk with a man who has interviewed dozens of politicians about their very first campaigns. We'll have that conversation in just a few minutes.

But, first, massive sanctions against Penn State University's football program have been leveled by college sports' governing body, the NCAA. It all comes after that child sex abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky and the alleged cover-up by top university officials.

Here's NCAA President Mark Emmert.

MARK EMMERT: No price the NCAA can levy will repair the grievous damage inflicted by Jerry Sandusky on his victims. However, we can make clear that the culture, actions and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in collegiate athletics.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called Pablo Torre. He's a reporter with Sports Illustrated. He's a frequent guest in our Barbershop roundtable. He's with us now from our bureau in New York to talk about all this.

Pablo, thanks so much for joining us.

PABLO TORRE: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Now, this is the kind of thing that will mean a lot to people in the sports world, but if you don't follow sports, it might not make as much sense to you. So I'm going to ask you to put some sense of the scope of this.

I'll just read a couple of the penalties. The team's been stripped of wins, which means Joe Paterno is no longer the winningest coach in NCAA history. The team has been banned from post-season play for four years, docked scholarships, forced to pay $60 million to charitable causes. All players are free to transfer, and the Big 10 Conference is adding its own penalties, meaning that Penn State cannot participate in the revenue generated by post-season play. And all this is after the school took down a statue of Joe Paterno from the front of the stadium this weekend.

For $60 million - I think everybody understands that that's a big number. But of all those penalties, what do you think? From the context of college sports, what's the most significant? What's the most damaging?

TORRE: I think they're all really damaging, and that's not just a cop-out. And I'll explain why. I think, in a couple of ways, this is the most severe, harshest penalty the NCAA has ever laid down.

So the usual nuclear option, when it comes to punishing a school, is to do what's called the death penalty, last applied to SMU football in the '80s. The problem is that SMU and schools of ilk committed, you know, crimes - quote, unquote, "crimes" - that had to do in the world of sports. This is very different.

And so when you look at how the NCAA levied it, $60 million is a lot of money. It's also approximately one year of revenue from Penn State football. The post-season ban is significant because that's a huge deterrent for recruits. This is a crippling move for a program that's obviously competing in an incredibly competitive conference - the Big 10 and in Division I football, generally.

Joe Paterno's win total is significant because he was the all-time winningest coach at 409 wins, now down to 298. And although the NCAA has, you know, this sort of weird time machine they climb into to impose that, that's as much a symbolic gesture as anything.

The scholarships, lastly, might be the most crucial for a coach. By reducing them down to 10 initial scholarships, and then 20 each year, losing by those amounts, that makes Penn State closer to a I-AA football team and really cripples that program.

MARTIN: Now, there's been some talk in the lead-up to this announcement that the NCAA doesn't have the authority to mete out this punishment in this way. It does seem as though Penn State's not going to appeal. The president of Penn State - the new president, Rodney Erickson, put out a statement saying he accepts the penalties. So it doesn't seem as though they're going to appeal.

But what about the argument that the NCAA really doesn't have authority in this because this is not about Penn State's competitiveness? It's not about their athletic conduct. It's about a criminal matter, which is not the same. Do you - you know, some of the fans - some of the alumni are saying this, you know, online in their chat boards and so forth. What's your take on that?

TORRE: I think it's a valid argument. I think that the NCAA was not designed for this. You know, compared to a civil and criminal court, the NCAA is a mall cop. The NCAA cannot subpoena anything. The NCAA's rule book, 400 pages though it may be, doesn't deal with matters of actual moral horror, actual criminal activities in the larger society. So the NCAA inherently is not designed to deal with this problem.

The issue, though, and why I think the NCAA was right to deal here - even if it's not designed to do this - is because you can't ignore something of this scope. The school used football, college football - or Jerry Sandusky used college football, and the school abetted him in doing so. And you just can't say: We can turn this over to the larger bodies. The NCAA needs to say something about this. And if they're going to say something, what they did today, this morning, is honestly a very good set of punishments under that rubric.

MARTIN: We're talking about the sanctions imposed against Penn State - the Penn State football program - today by the NCAA. I'm joined by Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo Torre, who's been covering this.

Well, you know, to your point, Pablo, NCAA President Mark Emmert said repeatedly today that he wants this to be a lesson for other schools, that football shouldn't be put on a pedestal like it apparently was at Penn State, that sport shouldn't be glorified, as he's suggesting that it is at other schools around the country.

Do you think that this will - first of all, talk a little bit about what you think he's saying here. Can you translate that, if you would?

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, you've talked about this before in terms of the college - the football program becoming kind of a world unto itself. You eat, sleep and breathe football. But do you think these sanctions will have that intended effect?

TORRE: I think they're a wake-up call, but honestly, that argument is the most intellectually dishonest part of the NCAA's stance today. The NCAA makes billions of dollars off of college football and college sports and college athletes. And their whole moral stance about being an amateur and yet being a multi-billion dollar business is completely untenable from a purely logical perspective. So that kind of rhetoric is all too common, but at the same time, if you're going to punish schools for making football your religion, then not just Penn State is at - you know, is guilty, here. Every big college football program is guilty, here, and that's problematic for me.

I think Penn State had a wake-up call. This is another wake-up call, but to say that that's why they're going to punish Penn State, so they can re-shift their culture in line with the NCAA's ideal, that to me is incredibly naive.

MARTIN: And, finally, before we let you go, Pablo, you'd alluded to this earlier. The NCAA does have the so-called death penalty, where a school can be banned from playing football for a period of time. That hasn't happened since the late '80s with Southern Methodist University. Why do you think they didn't?

TORRE: Because this is worse. This is worse than the death penalty, I think. Not only is it public and more, you know - and just a bigger story than that. I think it's the idea that four years - not just a couple of years - and you have a unique penalty, a financial $60 million fine.

You know, all of these things are more comprehensive in scope and more severe than the simple death penalty would have been, and I think it's actually an admirable gesture for the NCAA to say this is the new worst penalty. Those other things would not have been right to apply to a school that was guilty of the worst crime that has ever hit college sports.

MARTIN: Pablo Torre is a reporter for Sports Illustrated, and he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Thanks, Pablo.

TORRE: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.