Life as an Extreme Sport

When Programs Implode – Penn State & Personal Experience

The NCAA announced numerous sanctions against Penn State this morning; a large fine, the vacating of wins, a reduction in scholarships, removal from Bowl games. The Big Ten quickly followed with matching sanctions (since Penn State will be ineligible to compete in post-season games they will not receive championship revenues), and of course, everyone is still waiting to see what the Department of Justice and the Department of Education is going to do (but it’s safe to say that Penn State is looking at further sanctions).

The thing that impressed me about the NCAA decision is how it was designed to affect the university and the utterly broken, sports-focused culture that allowed the Sandusky abuse to continue for so long; the culture that said it was better to cover-up, for the school’s sake, than to actually report a child predator. Yes, these sanctions will affect the student athletes – but minimally. The NCAA clearly forbids Penn State from taking money from other athletics programs, so a smaller team like women’s field hockey shouldn’t be affected by the sanctions. Likewise, anyone directly affected by the football-focused punishments have several options. All the football players are being allowed to transfer to other schools, if they wish, without losing eligibility to play this year. Yes, the timing sucks and school starts soon – but the option is there, and already, players who signed intent letters have dropped them and are clearly going elsewhere. And the option exists for all football players, not just incoming students. Likewise, football players are allowed to keep their athletic scholarships even if they choose to no longer play.

The NCAA went out of their way to make sure that sanctions didn’t include something that would directly and negatively impact individual players, like the death penalty would have. Yes, the NCAA did adopt a scorched earth, nuke from orbit policy – but it’s aimed directly at the malignant football-as-god culture of Penn State, and that’s specifically what they aim to dismantle.

I am sympathetic to the students who are caught up in this. They chose Penn State based on reputation, on the idea that they would be going to a school where they’d be working with the best in their field, and they’d be learning from the best, with opportunities that they couldn’t have anywhere else. Anyone who has read my blog for a while, or who otherwise knows me, knows just how much I understand this motivation – it’s precisely how I made my graduate school decision back in 2006. But unlike the Penn State players, I didn’t have a governing body going out of its way to protect me in 2008; it doesn’t take a degree in rocket science to poke around and see what happened to me (or the long-term fallout). So yes, I understand – I probably understand what those Penn State students are going through more than anyone who hasn’t been on a team slapped with NCAA sanctions.

But because I understand, I see, clearly, just how far Emmert and the NCAA executive committee went to do their best to protect any student affected by the sanctions, with the understanding that the students are not to be faulted for making a school choice based on the information they had at the time. Yes, it sucks – there’s no other word for it – that students are going to be affected by the sanctions that the NCAA and Big Ten are levying against Penn State. But there is also no way to directly enforce sanctions, especially sanctions designed to function as a corrective to an out-of-control problem, without having some affect on the students.

It could be so much worse. They could be out of scholarships, out of school, told with almost no time left before the academic year begins that they are on their own and there’s no help out there for them. They’re not. Yes, it’s going to be an uncomfortable couple of weeks as players make their decisions, and it will be hard for anyone who chooses to stay – but this is one of those life lesson moments. People above you fuck up. People in organizations make mistakes, and unfortunately it does trickle down and affect everyone in an organization. It happens in business all the time – see Enron, see the multiple bank scandals of the last few years, see Wall Street. And when you’re a low level peon in an organization where the folks up top fuck up, whether or not you’re a graduate student or a football player or a secretary or even security guard, you’re going to see the effect in your own life and you’re going to have to figure out how to roll with the punches.

It’s life, and it’s living, and it’s a horrible lesson to have to learn when you think you’re in a protected sphere. But there’s a net for the Penn State players, and they’ll have a chance to at least land on their feet, thanks to the consideration of Emmert and the NCAA. A lot of people, myself included, weren’t given such a luxury.