Construction Literary Magazine

Fall 2020

Penn State Football: Not Too Big to Fail

Penn State Football: Not Too Big to Fail

Photograph via Flickr by Mike Pettigano

On Saturday, August 18, CBS aired a short TV program previewing the upcoming season of college football. With only a few weeks until the return of undergraduates and opening kickoff, students, alumni, and various fans were no doubt excited about another chance for their teams to claim dominance in the respective conferences, if not on the national stage. There was one problem with this preview, though, and anchor Tim Brando was quick to point it out: the off-season between 2011 and 2012 was unlike any other. In recent memory, there have been high-profile sanctions against celebrated programs like the University of Southern California and the Ohio State University, but even these various scandals cannot compare with what went down at Penn State University over last year. As such, the CBS show began with a look back.

Here is one way you know that the Penn State conversation (whether taking place on-air or off) is unprecedented: it is unlikely that people uninterested in college football can explain why or when Reggie Bush returned his Heisman trophy, or what exactly led to Ohio State coach Jim Tressel resigning from his post after a decade-long dominance over the Big Ten. On the flip side, you don’t have to know what an I Formation is in order to have deep and serious thoughts about the firing and legacy of longtime football coach Joe Paterno. Outside of the slight green mountains encircling State College, PA (and the clusters of alumni across the country), even intimating a defense of the recently deceased coach is, in and of itself, grounds for considerable outrage. It’s no surprise that the Penn State community looks ahead to the 2012 while keeping one foot stuck in the past; more than needing time to lick their collective wounds, the Nittany Nation is still coming to terms with what many feel was a lack of due process and a crippling, premature punishment served by the hands of the NCAA Chairman this past July.

[pullquote_right]When the smoke settled, a new buzzword attached itself to the sanctions: “draconian.”[/pullquote_right]

It’s hard to say exactly how competitive the 2012 Nittany Lions might have been without the scandals, the resignations, the firings and the sanctions. Some might even say that speculating on the subject is itself an offensive act. Either way, the fact remains that college football is and will forever be a different universe because of what horrific events transpired on and around the campus of Penn State University. And, just like the producers at CBS Sports felt a few weeks ago, it really is impossible to move ahead without first thinking seriously about these events and their aftermath. This is to say that while Penn State football is out of the equation for a national championship, let alone a Big Ten trophy, it is—and has been—the conversation. It can be a difficult conversation to have, and one most people might prefer to ignore, but the relationship between the governing body and one of its (former) model universities bears further examination—just like the crime itself was not really a football problem in the way we’ve come to think of recruiting violations or player compensation as football problems, so too is the solution here too elusive to be found on the gridiron, in the locker room, or in the front office. Nonetheless, the NCAA acted swiftly, irrefutably and with a disruptive force previously unseen.

In the days leading up to the announcement of the NCAA’s penalty for Penn State, the media built anticipation vis-à-vis cryptic buzzwords like “unprecedented” and “death penalty.” By now, you may have heard the results of these sanctions. They were shocking to many and for various reasons: some expected an immediate death penalty and were disappointed by its absence; others instantly realized that what NCAA Chairman Mark Emmert handed down was much worse. When the smoke settled—as much as it could have after what had been a very public, eleven-month-long scandal—another buzzword began to attach itself to various sanctions, censures, and vacated wins. That word was “draconian.”

The choice of the word draconian is interesting. The adjective refers to a punishment that is both steep and severe, and the word itself derives from the ancient Athenian legislator Draco, who was made famous by doling out these sorts of blandishments. Tying the NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State to the ancient world is not a far-fetched impulse, as the Roman Republic had on its books an obscure law known as the homo sacer, whose inception and application are germane to this discussion. In order to see how the two punishments mirror one another, it’s necessary first to revisit what exactly transpired and then to analyze the NCAA’s sanctions through the lens of Ancient Roman law.

By now, the pedophilic crimes committed on the Penn State campus by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky are widely known. More so, they are already infamous and likely will become unforgettable in the worst possible way. After the grand jury investigation led to the arrest of Sandusky, the university and football program for which he once worked were both shaken to their cores. As Sandusky was also most recently known as a community leader because of his now-defunct charity The Second Mile, his actions truly affected the wider community of Central Pennsylvania. In short succession, President Graham Spanier resigned, Coach Joe Paterno was fired, the students rioted and held candlelight vigils at equal turns, and the rest of America waited for justice.

[pullquote_right]After a swift trial, the confirmation of Sandusky’s guilt satisfied no one.[/pullquote_right]

The problem, of course, was that after a relatively swift trial in Bellefonte, PA, the confirmation of Sandusky’s guilt satisfied no one. Many perceived the crimes and the subsequent scandal as an institutional problem or a community failure (or both). In 1998, while Sandusky was still a coach at Penn State, there was an initial warning of potential crimes, but investigators determined that there was no crime worth pursuing. Then there was the 2001 shower incident that was reported to Paterno by Mike McQueary and mishandled by various people within the upper echelon of the university’s power structure. Eventually, 10 victims would make the case against Sandusky in court, where he was found guilty on the vast majority of charges.

Since it goes without saying that child rape is beyond heinous and that the university did not, but should have, reacted appropriately to prevent it, most of the country did not want or expect the organizational problems to subside simply because the legal action had run its course. As such, the university (and, by extension, Penn State supporters and detractors) braced itself and waited for punishments. By mid-summer, it almost appeared as if Penn State would take the field in 2012 with a few major changes to the coaching staff and little else. Then reports were leaked concerning an NCAA investigation and looming sanctions. Soon enough, in a matter of weeks following the Sandusky trial, a ruling was handed down by the NCAA. Many were surprised to learn that Penn State had not ended up receiving the dreaded death penalty. Not explicitly, anyway.

In the end, the governing body of college athletics deemed the Penn State football program not too big to fail. “It’s more like being too big to even question or even to intrude on and control,” NCAA Chairman Mark Emmert said. “And if those are the realities that were going on in this program, we need to then, again figure out how do we fix that culture?” By withholding the death penalty, Emmert publicly postured as a magnanimous executive, in spite of the fact that the threatened alternative to accepting his non-negotiable terms was an even-more-severe four-year death sentence. In essence, Emmert’s solution was to devise a punishment for the football program that technically kept it alive while effectively rendering it lifeless for years to come. This idea may seem contradictory, but it is not the only paradoxical outcome of the NCAA’s sanctions.

Penn State’s punishment was indeed unprecedented, at least in terms of intercollegiate sports governance. However, if we look back to the Roman laws and practices of the 5th Century B.C.E., we might discover that the tradition of the homo sacer provides an interesting perspective. According to Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the homo sacer was a citizen of the Republic who was declared legally dead while still being kept biologically alive. For all intents and purposes, this man was stripped of the rights and privileges afforded to a Roman citizen, but he was not technically put to death in the clinical sense of the word. It should not be hard to see how this basic definition of the homo sacer compares with what happened to Penn State. Yet the similarities between these two subjects do not end with the dead/undead dialectic.

[pullquote_right]The Romans decreed that their citizens could murder the homo sacer with absolute impunity.[/pullquote_right]

In Latin, homo sacer has a double meaning. It can either be interpreted as “the accursed man” or “the sacred man.” This was not simply a social caste downgrade: to say that someone with this designation was a second-class citizen would be giving the individual too lofty a title. Quite literally, these people were rendered as pariahs. Because the punishment was doled out to men who had broken an oath of some kind, they could not celebrate in either the civic or the religious traditions of ancient Rome. The concept of oath breaking is especially important in this discussion, because from the outset, the Penn State scandal evolved over two separate sets of law: the one of the state and the one of public opinion.

The ancient Romans were a much more literal and straightforward culture than we are. Their bloodlust was no doubt as strong as ours, but they did not take the measures to enshroud or spin their desires into anything but what they clearly were. To this end, the ancient Romans decreed that any one of their citizens could murder the homo sacer with absolute impunity, provided that the cast-out individual was not sacrificed for a religious ritual. The homo sacer’s death could not have any kind of purgational quality because the man had betrayed the gods and forfeited his soul—there could be no goodness left from which the Romans could extract payment. In the modern era, though, the rules of how to treat this new version of the homo sacer are not so clear and direct.

There is no debate about whether or not the NCAA punishments were severe. There is still an ongoing debate about whether or not they were deserved. But what remains to be seen is what they will actually accomplish. Chairman Emmert explained that these punishments were necessary because the culture at Penn State needed to change and the university itself had not acted swiftly or deeply enough on its own. Most of the media outlets reported these words without commentary, or at least they neglected to point out that every single person associated with the scandal not named Jerry Sandusky had not yet received due process under the law. Even accepting Emmert’s words at face value, though, one must wonder how vacated wins, fines, and the loss of eligible scholarships relates in any way at all to the prevention of child abuse. This is a problem. Had Penn State simply become the college football equivalent of the homo sacer, we would know that the punishment was just in accordance with the crimes committed, and we would know better than to think that the Nittany Lions could be sacrificed for the good of our collective consciences. By the end of Penn State’s probation, will any of the victims feel that justice has finally been served? Perhaps, but it would only be in a symbolic rather than literal way.

A four-year death penalty would have no doubt been more devastating for Penn State. It is unlikely that any member of the Nittany Nation would have preferred this outcome to the current sanctions, but at least with a death penalty the motives and the effects are clear and unambiguous. What the college football world is left with instead is a walking paradox, a dark blemish on the already shadowy world of the NCAA. The Penn State program has been maimed—possibly irreparably so—but the failure to completely euthanize the team sends a nebulous message to the rest of the NCAA, proving that you do not want to be on its bad side and little else.

The moral corollary of Newton’s Third Law of Physics suggests that the book should have been thrown with a force equal and opposite to the despicable crimes committed at the Pennsylvania State University. But by avoiding the binary options of inaction or euthanasia, the NCAA really did devise an unprecedented sequence of events. Even the sanctions’ resemblances to the Roman tradition of the homo sacer break down when considering the tripartite relationship between cause, effect, and punishment. The sanctions are beyond draconian, not because they are severe, but because we don’t even know if they’ll benefit anyone in any way.