Should Penn State Football Receive the Death Penalty?

Should Penn State Football Receive the Death Penalty?


Child abuse scandal tarnishes Joe Paterno’s legacy.

Penn State’s football program should receive the NCAA’s version of the death penalty. At least that is the call by some following the release of a Louis Freeh report investigating the university’s handling of a child sex abuse scandal. That report revealed a shocking disregard for the welfare of children, with the first reports of abuse surfacing in 1998, but then swept under the rug time and again for the next 14 years.

Child Abuse Scandal

Freeh, who served as FBI director for nearly eight years beginning in 1993, revealed that football coach Joe Paterno and Penn State officials buried the child sex allegations against assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to avoid negative publicity. In addition to Paterno, the report called out former university President Graham Spanier and two other university administrators for covering up the scandal. Freeh was hired by the university’s trustees to investigate the allegations and issue a report.

Said Freeh at a news conference last Thursday in Philadelphia where he released his 267-page report, “Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.”

Joe Paterno’s Legacy

Paterno, who died of lung cancer in January, had long been held up as a model coach, revered both for his coaching prowess as well as for running a stellar program. Freeh said that the report would damage the coach’s “terrific legacy,” while noting that Paterno played an integral part in the university’s decision to conceal the scandal. Thus, his firing last season was justified.

The report doesn’t close the door on further legal action including a criminal case against Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, a retired senior vice president reports Fox News. Both have been accused of failing to report abuse and lying to a grand jury. Other university officials could be charged pending the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office own investigation. Sandusky, who was already convicted of his crimes, is still awaiting sentencing.

The Aftermath

News detailing the report’s findings quickly spread with people taking to Twitter to voice their opinions as well as to popular sport sites such as ESPN, which encouraged a discussion that soon yielded more than 5,000 reader comments. Some called for Joe Paterno’s 7-foot statue to be removed, a visible tribute to the legendary coach located just outside of Beaver Stadium. Others asked that the general university community not be tagged with the same disgrace on the football program, noting that the actions of a handful of people should be treated separately.

Calls for the Penn State football program to receive the NCAA’s death penalty immediately followed the release of the Freeh report. That penalty refers to the NCAA’s power to punish a sports program by forcing it to sit out for a few seasons. Although a program isn’t officially killed, its players are permitted to transfer to other schools and no games are played. After a few seasons the program is restored, but as the Southern Methodist case of the 1980s has shown us, such programs are permanently altered.

NCAA Death Penalty

Making a case for the end of Penn State football was Michael Ventre of NBC Sports. Initially, Ventre believed that the Sandusky child abuse scandal was one for criminal justice system to handle, that the NCAA should restrict itself to handling “competition-based offenses.”

Ventre, however, articulated that the case is competition-based as it allowed the university to “…protect the sanctity of the football program and make sure it continued unfettered, winning games and raking in cash.” Ventre claims that Paterno created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, one that forbid transparency and ultimately masked the Sandusky scandal.

CultureMap editor Chris Baldwin was more nuanced in his comments, saying that “Joe Paterno is dead and the Penn State football program needs to join him.” Instead of waiting for the NCAA to act, Baldwin called on Penn State president Rodney Erickson to immediately end Nittany Lion football himself.

Scandal Baggage

Ventre and Baldwin may not see an end to Penn State football, but the program will always be overshadowed by dishonor and betrayal. That shadow may prove more burdensome than a death penalty, as star athletes avoid Nittany Lion football for programs without that baggage.


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