Written by Madison House Photo via Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
In the weeks leading up to the Rose Bowl matchup between Penn State and USC, the media was pumping up the event as the “big comeback Bowl Game.” Both teams, having historically been very strong football programs, were in their first good season since harsh sanctions each had received several years prior.
USC’s sanctions were the result of an aspiring sports agent paying the rent for running back Reggie Bush’s parents. Penn State’s sanctions followed something far different. The president, athletic director, vice president, and head football coach covered up the wrongdoings of their beloved Jerry Sandusky for at least 10 years.
We shouldn’t condone the actions of the USC athletic program. Giving money to college athletes or their families is against NCAA rules. However, it’s important to recognize the difference between helping the family of a player, who needs that economic support, and the occurrence and subsequent institutional suppression of child molestation.
Joe Paterno and Jerry Sandusky began coaching for Penn State in the 1960s and created a strong football program with one of the highest graduation rates. Their program was known for its integrity and morality. The fame and influence of these coaches extended off of the football field as well; Sandusky began a presidentially recognized charity organization called the Second Mile, which aimed to support underprivileged children in Pennsylvania.
Second Mile children often developed relationships with Sandusky, accompanying him to football games, meeting the players, and playing on the football field. To children living difficult lives in rural Pennsylvania, excursions with a celebrity onto the most important site in town was special.
In 2001 or 2002, a PSU coaching assistant saw assistant coach Jerry Sandusky raping a ten-year-old boy in the showers of the Penn State locker-room. He reported his findings to head coach Joe Paterno who passed that information along to President Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz, and athletic director Tim Curley. Originally, as an email conversation suggests, the three concluded they would report the incident to the authorities. Somewhere it was decided to “handle” it internally.
Why would the president, athletic director, and head coach hide child rape or even questionable Sandusky-child relationships?
The athletics program at Penn State made about $53 million a year during the Paterno-Sandusky era. This profit was largely based on the reliance of its town, State College, and the sparkling legacy of the duo that created a historic football and academic program from scratch. Many argue that the administration wasn’t aware of the extent of Sandusky’s actions, but a 1998 investigation of Sandusky’s possible sexual involvement with children gave a background for the allegation in 2001.
It wasn’t until eight years later that a new investigation on Jerry Sandusky opened up the extent of his violations: 52 young boys came forward with cases about Sandusky, including Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt, and eight victims testified in court. Most victims had similar stories of having poor backgrounds and becoming enchanted with the famous man picking them up but taking the loving father figure too far.
A few years earlier, PSU’s “comeback” rival was facing a far different scandal.
Reggie Bush grew up with a single working mother and little to no relationship with his biological father. Reggie Bush’s need for economic stability made him an easy target for a questionable sports agent.
With the power of education or socioeconomic status, he might have refused the offer, but isn’t the point of college football to give Bush enough education to support his mother and his future?
USC received harsh sanctions justified by their supposed “lack of institutional control” because the athletic director allegedly knew of the wrongdoing and failed to stop it. A valid point, even though the NCAA evaluation gave no individual charge to either the athletic director or the head coach, just a general lack of institutional control.
How does the NCAA justify punishing a football player for accepting rent for his mom’s apartment more harshly than an administration that covers up for a man molesting and raping ten-year-old boys on its campus?
The NCAA’s job is to sanction college athletic programs when rules are broken. Thus, the USC football program received sanctions of scholarships reduced by 30 over the time span of three years, loss of all wins from the 2005 season and two from the 2004 season, and two years of a postseason ban. Penn State received a four-year postseason ban, loss of 112 wins (from 1998 to 2011) including two national titles, one year of the school’s football revenue in a fine, and a loss of 40 scholarships over four years.
These two sets of sanctions are considered two of the harshest sanctions in NCAA history, just short of the “death penalty,” banning that team’s athletic participation for one year. The extremity of the sanctions on Penn State calmed the situation after the initial shock by the horrible actions of Sandusky and the neglect of the Penn State administration to help the young boys.
However, both USC and Penn State appealed for the reduction of their sanctions due to the detrimental effects such sanctions have on a strong football program. USC was denied any reduction of their sanctions, extending their punishment until the 2016-2017 season. Penn State’s appeal lowered their sanctions to the fine and the 112 vacated wins.
How come the sanctions on both schools were so similar? And why were the PSU sanctions repealed, making them significantly less detrimental than those on USC? Both universities displayed a lack of institutional control, but which caused more damage?
While the NCAA claims that a “college degree is at the heart of our mission,” this value often isn’t translated into practice; most student-athletes aren’t required to graduate to become professional athletes, they receive school benefits, and even those that do graduate are given academic “advantages” to maximize the time they spend on the field. Because very few can accumulate enough wealth as a professional athlete, a vast majority of college athletes will need to rely on other skills that were possibly compromised due to their athletic value.
This opportunity for the exploitation of students questions whether or not college athletes should be paid because universities have very little incentive to educate their players or ensure a good quality of life for them. Thus, universities can take advantage of the fact that many aspiring football players lack financial means to get an education or make a living without utilizing their athletic gifts. The NCAA should be their avenue to use physical talents to get a strong education.
As many argue, Reggie Bush should’ve been financially aided for his contribution to the university and to the NCAA which likely would’ve eliminated any relationship between his family and the agent.
As for the effects of the PSU case, many argue that child rape is a worse crime than murder, as raping or molesting a child can have serious effects on that child’s life. About one-third of rape victims consider suicide, and the younger the child, the more their world is morphed by their experiences.
Another prominent defense of the PSU administration is that even though they didn’t punish Sandusky or prevent future harmful interactions, they didn’t completely ignore Sandusky’s actions: they took away his key to the locker room.
Pedophilia is largely considered a mental disorder, a disease, not to mention the mental illness necessary to sexually take advantage of another human being, no matter the age. Coupled with the about 50 young children molested or raped by Sandusky, it’s hard to argue that Sandusky was mentally healthy. Though that in no way justifies his behavior, it increases the necessity of the healthy to ensure the protection of the children who lacked the ability to advocate for themselves.
Paterno, Curley, Schultz, and Spanier likely weren’t pedophiles, likely don’t have a history of sexual assault, so shouldn’t they have been responsible for protecting the situation? They were aware that Sandusky was having inappropriate relations with young boys on school campus and failed to stop it. All of the child rapes and molestation by Sandusky from 2001 to 2011 could’ve been prevented by any of those four men contacting the authorities.
If that’s not a “lack of institutional control,” it is not clear what is. The only control they demonstrated was protecting their football program from the bad publicity of child rape.
There is little to no acknowledgment of the reduction in Penn State sanctions. In fact, many continually display Penn State as having received the harshest sanctions in history, when, in reality, they received very minimal punishment.
Ultimately, the NCAA is faced with recognizing the complexities involved in sanctioning universities. Regardless of which team you cheer for, it’s important to look at why each violation occurred and how harmful that violation was in order to determine the equity of the sanctions.