Penn State Football, the Death Penalty, and Drone Strikes

On November 10, 2011 I wrote a piece calling for the trustees at Penn State to “simply announce that Penn State will not field a football team for the next five years.”  I wanted this to happen because calling a halt to football sends a strong message – there are more important things than Football at State College. I further hoped (without being naive, or deluded that any of my hopes would come to pass) that Penn State would take the lead on starting a serious national dialogue on the role of sports in American colleges. And I hoped that the NCAA would join Penn State in starting a national dialogue on the role of sports in American colleges (to read that piece, click here.)

Now that the Freeh Report is out, there is a debate about what should happen to Penn State football. Fundamentally, the debate is about whether the NCAA should suspend Penn State from fielding a football team for a year or two – the so called ‘death penalty’. Really, death penalty? Give me a break. It is true that if Penn State cannot play NCAA Division I football for even a year they will have to spend quite some time rebuilding their program – but to rebuild is not death.

The argument against imposing this minor penalty on Penn State is that students and others associated with Penn State football will pay a price without having done anything wrong. The argument goes that punishing the program will penalize the students who signed up for Penn State football and who played no role in the disgusting details that the Freeh Report brings out into the open. And the economic consequences for those who make their money from Penn State football like motels and restaurants, who also did not play any role in the tragic events at State College, will be rather severe. This is a rather interesting and strange argument in a country where there is no serious public outcry against the use of drone strikes which kill innocent civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The collateral damage if the Penn State program is suspended is as exaggerated as the claim that imposing the suspension is a death penalty.

So while I think that the “oh the innocent Penn State kids and others will suffer” argument is silly, I still do not think that the NCAA should suspend Penn State for a year. I think that the good people at Penn State should voluntarilyy suspend their program and detox themselves from the deleterious effects of football mania for a few years. And they should remove the statue of Joe Paterno from the stadium. Imagine how profoundly the mindset will change if Penn State football fans cannot go to a football game on Saturdays in Fall, in a stadium which no longer has a statue of  Joe Pa on its west side. The amazing thing is that the other things that the university does well will go on – the study of Mathematics, Ethics, Economics, Religion, Engineering, Business, …. all the things that should be primary in a university. Maybe people will start talking a little about the strength of Penn State’s academic programs.

Put bluntly, Penn State should act affirmatively and without coercion to put football (and other sports) in perspective – something that they enjoy and encourage, but something they can do without if the circumstances so demand. And the only way to show that you can do without something, is to do without it.


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