Piling on Penn State: The NCAA Kills an Already-Dead Football Team

Yes, the sanctions will hurt. But they won't do anything the program hadn't already done to itself.


Let's agree that the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal at Penn State is so horrendous that it transcends mere athletic issues. For the moment, what we're focusing on is this morning's announcement by NCAA president Mark Emmert about sanctions that will be taken against the Penn State football program.

In football, when a play is whistled dead and a defending player jumps on the scrum, it's known as piling on. That's what the NCAA is doing in this case: piling on.

The football program at Penn State was dead from the moment the scandal became public.

Since Sandusky's conviction on 43 of 48 accounts of sexual abuse to young boys, it has been inevitable that the University was going to be hit with such a firestorm of lawsuits from the proven victims—and God only knows how many more are waiting out there to make themselves known—that the $60 million fine imposed by the NCAA will seem like pass-the-hat change.

Indeed, the supposedly jaw-dropping $60 million fine is not, as is currently being said, equal to one year's worth of football revenue, which is estimated at (by the NCAA) around $100 million. It is slightly in excess of last year's estimated football profit at Penn State, by about $7 million.

The other sanctions are far more damaging. The loss of 10 scholarships a year for the next four years means the team will have no depth and no protections from injuries; the four-year postseason ban means more than just the loss of revenue from bowl games, it also means the loss of income from the conference championship games.

The real stinger, though, is the NCAA giving free passage to all players to transfer to—and to be immediately eligible to play for—other programs. Some, like ESPN's Lou Holtz, are saying, "This could really help Penn State football by appealing to a player's sense of loyalty." But it won't. Most of the blue-chip recruits haven't been there long enough to develop any loyalty to Penn State, and in any event, didn't choose to go to Penn State out of loyalty but out of a desire to play in the Rose Bowl or in a national championship or for a chance to play in the NFL.

Sports commentators are overlooking one very important point: Alabama football did not begin with Bear Bryant. He merely revived a tradition that had been there for decades. Nor did Ohio State football begin with Woody Hayes. The same is true at Southern Cal, Oklahoma, Texas, Michigan, and most other major college football programs. Which is why these other schools have weathered years of losing and were able to bounce back and become winning teams again.

Penn State has no such tradition. They were a middling-to-fair program under the late Rip Engle, under whom Paterno served as assistant coach. Penn State has never had a true moment of football glory that did not connect directly with Joe Paterno. Their football greatness began with Joe Paterno, and it died with him—in more ways than one. Tearing down the statue was simply a formality.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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