Beyond Retribution at Penn State

On Monday, Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, announced their sanctions against Penn State University and the conspiracy of silence, uncovered by the Freeh Report, that protected now-convicted child pedophile Jerry Sandusky for 14 years from 1998 through 2011. Penn State officials have responded with appropriate chagrin and determination to continue “to move forward.” Mark Emmert called the cover-up and child abuse “perverse and unconscionable” in his press conference announcing his decision. Many, many others have written and given television interviews about whether or not the NCAA’s sanctions were a “bad decision” and questioning “is this fair?”

This post isn’t about all that. I’ve got a real simple answer here: Nope, it’s not a bad decision, the NCAA has not set a “dangerous precedent,” and it’s still “fair” to all the student-athletes. Current and would-be incoming athletes can transfer and maintain eligibility AND will likely be able to stay on track to complete their degree. As my colleague Dr. Christina Lunceford, a former student-athlete herself schooled me, student-athletes have to show that they are making adequate progress toward a degree as a part of maintaining their eligibility. For players who have their hearts set on winning a championship or playing BCS bowl games over the next four years, they can seek transfer to another institution. For players who want to remain at Penn State and be student-athletes, they’ll retain their grants and aid and still play football. The $60 million fine will go into an ambiguous fund to support the “detection, prevention, and treatment” of child abuse.

Paterno’s legacy is forever tarnished. The university president ordered the removal of Paterno’s statue outside the football stadium and it is now completely demolished, wall and all. As Dr. Catherine Lugg wrote in her blog yesterday, there are many dangers inherent in “bronzing the living.” Winning more football games than anybody else shouldn’t make you great; character and integrity should be the test of greatness. I’m sure Paterno taught his players and fellow coaches many valuable lessons about teamwork, about perseverance, about passion, and about loyalty. Unfortunately, he failed to teach critical lessons about how to put that teamwork, perseverance, passion, and loyalty in the service of those who are vulnerable, marginalized, and most in need of justice.

So much emphasis has been put on the punitive part of the NCAA sanctions. To listen to ESPN and most other news outlets, bloggers, and folks talking around the water cooler, you’d like all there was to the sanctions was retribution and punishment. Heck, that’s all I thought there was until I went to NCAA’s website myself. Look at the sanctions yourself and scroll past what’s been blared all over the news for the past 72 hours: the 5-year probation, the $60 million fine, the “significant” scholarship losses, the 4 year ban on postseason play, the vacated wins from 1998-2011, and the change in Paterno’s coaching record now putting him down to 5th in Division I and 8th all-time. If you stop there, I think you’d be right to be a little off-put by it all and figure that it won’t address the issue. I was initially going to write this post about the overemphasis on retribution and the absence of significant restorative, corrective action on the part of the NCAA that would actually help prevent this from happening again in the future and serve as a model for other institutions to follow.

But if you look past all that to the corrective sanctions – it’s even labeled that way on the page – you’ll see much more that actually is substantive and directed at transforming the structures of how Penn State athletics, particularly its football program, will operate in the future. The NCAA has recommended the adoption of ALL of the recommendations made in Chapter 10 of the Freeh Report. Going further, though, the NCAA has required the creation of an Athletics Integrity Agreement (also in the Freeh Report) and an “independent Athletics Integrity Monitor for at least five years.” Together these additional sanctions would initiate the creation of several compliance systems to provide the checks and balances that were sorely missing which allowed Sandusky to victimize children in Penn State facilities with the knowledge of Penn State officials.

Learning, development, and growth don’t happen just by punishment. I might even argue that punishment rarely, if ever, leads to deep learning, development, and growth. Corrective action, restorative justice if you will, is about inspiring learning, development, and growth, and it has to go beyond retribution to cause the offending party (not just an individual in this case but a system, a structure that failed) to look within, to study itself, to change the way it operates. Only then will real change, will transformation even, occur. Corrective sanctioning takes faith, hope, and love. We only try to redeem the things we love. I love athletics for what it brings in positive growth and development to those who play and for the enjoyment it delivers to fans. Because I love it, I think it’s high time that we take very seriously its reform.

I think we need to talk more about the corrective sanctions (I’m looking at you ESPN especially, but also our higher education news outlets) and how we can transform toxic institutional structures that give too much autonomy and too little responsibility to intercollegiate athletics in our institutions of higher education.

Next time on Friday: Race and the 2012 Olympics