7.24.2012

penn state sanctions: justice for - and by - survivors

I spent some time last night reading reaction to the sanctions against Penn State University set out by the NCAA. (I should qualify that: I was reading the reactions of intelligent, compassionate people. I don't need to read anything written by people who care more about football than child sexual abuse.) If you haven't read about the sanctions, this is a good explanation.

Many people are upset, feeling that anything short of the so-called "death penalty" - the complete dismantling of Penn State's football program - is a failure of the NCAA.

Although I would have preferred to see the end of Penn State football for five or 10 years, I do think the NCAA sanctions are weighty and meaningful. They force the school to continue to play their vaunted sport in greatly diminished form. As my friend Barry Crimmins said on Facebook, they are "forced to be shitty in public" for a certain length of time, an ongoing public humiliation.

Certain aspects of the sanctions are especially meaningful. I'm pleased that more than a decade worth of wins will be wiped from the official record, because I care about history. Joe Paterno, whose shameful inaction enabled the sexual abuse of children, has been officially stripped of his honours, and that is fitting. I wish he were alive to see it, because he deserves to live with the shame.

The organization that allowed the abuse to continue - the sports equivalent of reassigning the priest so he can rape some kids in a new town - has to live with their ongoing humiliation, too. (Current football players can transfer to other universities and begin playing immediately, so while they are affected, their careers are not scuttled.) The whopping $60 million fine, the ban on postseason play, the reduction in scholarships, and the public exposure and shaming of the program means that Penn State football will not be competitive for at least a decade.

Regarding the fine, there seems to be some misunderstanding: the money doesn't go to the NCAA. The $60 million, roughly the annual revenue of Penn State's football program, will fund programs that assist victims of child sexual abuse and work to educate and prevent abuse. The programs can't be administered by Penn State or the NCAA. So the outrage over the NCAA profiting from Penn State's horrific past is misplaced.

For me, this entire story - the public outrage, the grand jury investigation, the criminal proceedings against Jerry Sandusky, Sandusky's conviction as a serial pedophile, The Freeh Report, and the NCAA actions against Penn State - has been very encouraging. Every moment of it - every second of air time, every pixel and column-inch - has been the result of activism on the part of survivors and their advocates - the social workers, therapists, program directors, community activists - who have refused to be silent.

Fifty years ago, none of this happens. Thirty years ago, a scandal erupts but Penn State is able to contain it and carry on. Today, the school's institutional failure, the power structure that put football and its profit ahead of human rights and the safety and dignity of children, has been exposed and, we hope, dismantled.

This sea change didn't just happen on its own, and it wasn't caused by media attention. Quite the contrary. The media storm, the conviction, and the sanctions are the collective result of every survivor who has ever said, "This was not my fault. This should not have been done to me. If it's been done to you, you are not alone."

My heart goes out to every one of the former children who were Sandusky's victims. Thank you all.

27 comments:

James Redekop said...

I have to admit, I was surprised the sanctions were as tough as they are. Or, to be more precise, I'm surprised there were even sanctions. So I'm pretty impressed with the NCAA.

laura k said...

I hear ya. I think the combined weight of the Freeh Report and Sandusky's criminal conviction put the NCAA in a position where they absolutely had to act. If they didn't, the credibility and integrity of of every decent college sports program would be ruined.

laura k said...

It also makes a difference that there was nothing ambiguous about Sandusky's actions. No "well, she was technically underage but sexually active" or "it's her word against his" or any other bullshit.

Last night I read some people questioning whether this would have been treated as severely if the victims had been female - that is, if there wasn't an element of homophobia, extra revulsion because the victims were boys. (I don't know if that's true or not.)

allan said...

Dave Zirin (The Nation): The NCAA Is Seeking Brand Rehabilitation, Not Justice, in the Penn State Scandal

"When the NCAA imposed its sanctions on Penn State — which included slashing its budget, removing scholarships and erasing game wins — it acted unilaterally, as a private, unaccountable force unleashed on a public institution. The possible colluding role played by the board of trustees and Governor Tom Corbett were all but ignored, while Penn students are made to bear the brunt of the punishment. Nation sports columnist Dave Zirin went on Democracy Now! to speak about the scandal and why the NCAA should not be wielding such unprecedented power."

***

James Redekop said...

Of course, what I'd really like to see is a change to a system where universities move away from being rich athletic institutions which fund small academic adjuncts out of their petty cash...

laura k said...

This is the rare time I must disagree with Dave Zirin. Of course, the NCAA and PSU are both seeking brand rehabilitation. But what could the NCAA do that would look like justice?

As for acting unilaterally, AFAIK that's how the system is set up. I'll listen to his comments in full, perhaps I'm missing a big piece of the picture.

laura k said...

Yes James, that might be nice. But not happening any time soon.

Amy said...

I agree with almost everything you said (and that the NCAA did), but I am puzzled by the decision to erase the records for the past teams. I understand the motive: to deny PSU any benefits from the years that this nightmare was going on and being ignored by the powers that be.

But I am troubled by the idea of trying to rewrite history. The team won those games, and the students who played on those teams were (presumably) not guilty of abuse or a cover-up. Why should their records be erased?

In MLB, I have no heard anyone suggest that the teams that, e.g., Mark McGuire played on while taking steroids should have their records altered or even that McGuire himself should have HIS record altered.

I guess I just don't understand what it really accomplishes to expunge a winning record other than to distort history and penalize innocent college players.

laura k said...

I think the primary motive for vacating those wins is to punish PSU and especially to punish Paterno - the "winningest coach", etc. To strip Paterno of his honours. I believe individual players' records for those games will remain. They'll be doing some complicated bookkeeping, for sure.

laura k said...

I just had a chance to read Dave Zirin's column. I am usually in 100% agreement with him, and he usually thinks of points and nuances that escaped me.

This time I think he is completely wrong. I'm really kind of disgusted that the voice of progressive politics in sports is publicly taking this position.

laura k said...

What vacating wins means - a primer.

laura k said...

Forbes: The absurdity of vacating wins. The writer uses the same example Amy does.

Of course, many many people in the baseball media have called for records of the steroid era to be changed - which would be ridiculous. But this change affects PSU and Paterno only, not individual players.

laura k said...

It makes me sick that Dave Zirin asks us to "step back from the hysteria" -that he would even call this hysteria is disgusting. Hysteria is when all the agitation is about something that didn't happen, or about something greatly exaggerated.

An institution knew that it employed a serial pedophile and he had access to young people, and they did nothing, to protect their vaunted football program.

It's not hysteria. It's justified outrage.

Amy said...

Thanks for that link. I guess that makes more sense than I thought, though I am still troubled by the Brave New World-like trick of rewriting history, whatever the motives. And I would imagine that players on those teams will feel that their records/championships will be eliminated in some sense even if their "individual" records are not. Can Player X still say, "We had an undefeated season," if the records don't so indicate?

(I know nothing about college football so this is really more about the principle than about anything specific to PSU.)

laura k said...

Amy, I didn't post the link to try to convince you, just for information purposes. I think your take on that is valid.

I don't worry about anything Orwellian in this regard, as the entire world of college football is a ridiculous fiction - that the students are also attending college, that they are not professionals, that the competition is fair, etc. etc. At the same time, most history in the US has been rewritten and whitewashed beyond any recognition. Numbers of wins for a college football team wouldn't be the place I made my stand for objective truth.

To me it's more important that the PSU football program be punished by its governing body (which Dave Zirin seems to find spooky and dangerous) than any other potential principle.

Amy said...

I took it as informational. :)

Yeah, I agree with the main points of your post and agree with your reaction to Zinn's article (which I can't even bring myself to read after reading what you quoted). I just was commenting on my disagreement with that one aspect of the decision. More "Newspeak" isn't justified by the fact that there is already lots of it.

laura k said...

You're right, it's not justified. But it's the norm, not an aberration. We're just more aware of it when it involves numbers.

Re Dave Zirin, don't take my word for it. I'd be very interested in your opinion. His column feels like a punch in the gut.

But you don't have to read it tonight. :)

Amy said...

OK, I will go read it. It might be a pleasant distraction from the baseball game.

Can we find some basis for rewriting this whole season for the Sox?

laura k said...

Can we find some basis for rewriting this whole season for the Sox?

I'll get right on that.

I'm sure we can come up with something!

Amy said...

Oh, wait---it's a video? I will have to watch it later. Can't listen to it and the game at the same time. :)

laura k said...

I was not referring to a video. This is Dave Zirin's column in The Nation.

Amy said...

Ok, now I have read the article. The firstlink above that Allan posted leads to a video, so I didn't know where the article was.

After reading the article, I am not as outraged as you are by what Zinn is saying, but I still think he is wrong. I don't think he is downplaying what PSU or Paterno or Sandusky did. He outright calls them criminals and their actions crimes. He believes the criminal justice system should do anything and everything to punish them.

His objection seems to be with the lack of due process used by the NCAA. But the NCAA itself admitted that ordinarily it would have preferred a full hearing and due process. However, PSU agreed to these penalties, presumably to avoid a hearing and get a quick resolution so that they could move forward. There was no violation of due process if PSU agreed to the penalties on advice of counsel and with full disclosure. It's like saying a plea bargain lacks due process.

So while I find what Zinn said to be just plain wrong, I don't think he is condoning or downplaying what happened at Penn State. I think he is probably just as outraged as anyone, but he is, for some odd reason, also angry with the NCAA.

laura k said...

Oh, I'm not accusing Zirin of not taking this seriously. And I'm not outraged at him - just disgusted. That may seem like splitting hairs, but I mean I'm not angry at Zirin. I'm extremely disappointed.

My use of the word "outrage" was in response to his use of the word "hysteria". See my comment above regarding that.

I don't think hysteria is at play here. And I don't know why Zirin feels the NCAA has no basis to punish PSU. He takes an extremely narrow reading of the jurisdiction of a NGB.

laura k said...

PS: It's Zirin, not Zinn, just in case you're searching for his name or discussing his column anywhere.

Amy said...

Oops! Thanks for the correction.

Yes, he seems not to appreciate the relationship between the NCAA and its members. I know nothing about Zirin, but this column seems to indicate a high degree of ignorance about the NCAA and its procedures. I am no expert, but the contractual relationship among NCAA members clearly entitles the governing body to regulate and enforce the collective rules that the members agree to follow in order to be a part of the organization. It's not some wholly external agency that has just willy-nilly stuck its nose into PSU's business.

laura k said...

That's what I don't get. He writes about sports, and he's not known for being sloppy or lazy or not doing his homework.

Amy said...

Sadly, most of the commenters on Zirin's article don't get it either. They also seem to think that the NCAA did not have the legal authority to do this. Clearly they don't know what the NCAA is: an association of colleges and universities established to regulate intercollegiate sports. Isn't that exactly what they are doing here? I assume that the NCAA regulations must somewhere have a clause prohibiting criminal activity by the coaches and administrators of the sports programs??