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Killing a Culture: Why the NCAA Did the Right Thing With Penn State

Many members of the Penn State family have acted honorably. Others still don't get it.
Many members of the Penn State family have acted honorably. Others still don't get it.

"My view is that we rolled over and played dead. They (board members) want to put Paterno behind them."--Anthony Lubrano, Penn State board member, to USA TODAY

If you needed evidence that there is a vocal segment of the Penn State fan base that still doesn't get it, even after the indictments and the Freeh report and the NCAA ax that fell Monday on the Nittany Lions football program, there it is. You can almost hear the outrage in Lubrano's voice -- How dare the board want to put Paterno behind them?

There are a few essential truths about Penn State that you have to understand before you can begin to understand why the NCAA handed down some of the toughest penalties in its history Monday.

The first is that Joe Paterno is not a great football coach or a good man that made a tragic mistake. To hear what Paterno heard about his former defensive coordinator and to at best allow it to be covered up and to at worst orchestrate a cover-up goes to the very soul of a man. You have to understand that Joe Paterno's true nature has become known: That of a sick, twisted individual whose priorities became warped because he would allow nothing -- not even basic human decency -- to get in the way of winning as many football games as possible.

You also have to understand that he didn't do it alone. There were accomplices -- those who helped him construct the facade of a program that was purportedly an exemplar for the nation, and the hundreds, perhaps thousands of silent accomplices like Anthony Lubrano who encouraged Joe Paterno to believe that he shouldn't allow anything to get in the way of winning as many football games as possible.

You have to understand all that because it gets to the heart of the outrage that has flown in from some corners of the Internet and the commentariat in the wake of the NCAA announcement. This was not about punishing Joe Paterno or the university administrators or the criminal at the center of this storm. It was about punishing the rest of those silent co-conspirators, and hoping that they'll finally get the message.

Because Joe Paterno and those who helped him would never have covered up the crimes that took place at Penn State if they didn't think they could get away with. And they thought they could get away with it because of the culture that surrounded that football program -- the culture that prompted students to riot when Paterno was fired and to camp out in an unsuccessful effort to protect his statue.

That culture was to blame for the cover-up as much as Paterno and university officials, and it was that culture that the NCAA had to try to obliterate Monday. This was not about punishing individuals, even if the lives of some individuals who had nothing to do with this will now be turned upside down. It was about amputating a culture that had become a cancer on one of the nation's institutions of higher learning, a culture that had aided and abetted monstrous crimes.

And it was about being the one organization that could do anything about it.

The NCAA's primary responsibility, when you rid of the rules and the details and just look at the overarching mission, is to regulate the athletics departments of universities who voluntarily become members. If this had happened in the art department or even the president's office and the NCAA stepped in, it would be grossly overstepping any semblance of its authority.

The NCAA punished Penn State's athletics department, though, because there is no one else there to punish the athletics department. The justice system has taken care of one of the criminals in this case and will likely soon take care of the others. And the actual university is probably facing perhaps the most significant sanctions from the U.S. Department of Education.

But aside from the massive legal liability -- which is almost certainly covered by the university's insurance -- there was only one organization left to deal with the epicenter of the disaster. The NCAA didn't ask for this responsibility and, unlike some of his critics, I doubt very seriously that Mark Emmert wanted this responsibility. But there was no one else. Emmert could act or allow Penn State's athletics department, the institution whose failures had permanently altered the lives of innocent children, to go through the self-serving ritual of firing all the bad actors and moving on like nothing had ever happened.

I'm not here to applaud Emmert, though I think there is a kind of courage in what he did today. What made Emmert's actions today remarkable was that he became the first authority figure in this tragedy to act like a compassionate human being. The fact that it's remarkable is so sad that I don't want to applaud, but I think it ought to be recognized.

And even if we accept for a moment that the NCAA went too far or got involved in something beyond its mission, it should still be difficult to find any outrage on behalf of Penn State. Remember, none of this would have happened if the administrators and Joe Paterno had remembered not just their jobs, not even just their moral responsibilities, but their decency and their very humanity. There is no NCAA overreach here if the football program at Penn State does not become a warped and hellish place.

The irony is that critics who have long condemned the NCAA for responding to trivial infractions are now condemning it for responding to serious matters. Those who have blasted the organization in the past for hewing too closely to the rules and showing inflexibility are now blasting it for finding common-sense ways to read those rules and being flexible enough to meet the demands of the situation. That raises questions about whether they're criticizing the decisions because they disagree or because they just don't like the NCAA.

Or maybe they just don't want the NCAA to sanction anyone, ever, and would rather college football become its own version of the Wild West. Which is a perfectly consistent point of view. But they should say that instead of hiding behind lofty legalisms about due process and jurisdiction.

What will the sanctions solve? Maybe they'll fix the culture at Penn State, or maybe they'll act as a deterrent to others who would follow the same path.

Because we all know that child abuse is wrong. We all know that covering it up is wrong. And yet, that's exactly what a handful of individuals at Penn State did. If there had been no punishment after this, if Penn State had been able to walk away with Joe Paterno having never seen prison time and with his name still atop the all-time wins list -- what exactly would have stopped the next equally twisted soul in the same situation from doing the same thing?

We mete out punishment as a society not to guide those who know what's right and wrong and try to follow those standards, because they will at least try to do the right thing. It is instead to try, sometimes in vain, to control the excesses of those whose moral compasses are weak or nonexistent.

The remaining challenge is for the NCAA to make sure this never again happens this way. it was possible for a time to ignore the idea that a famous head coach would cover up a series of violent felonies in his program while breaking no NCAA rules and persuade both the athletics department and the university administration to go along. In fact, it's hard to blame the NCAA for failing to see that such a far-fetched scenario would ever become reality.

But if unprecedented situations call for unprecedented answers, then part of real leadership is making sure that the unprecedented is accounted for in the future. There has to be a standard for this sort of thing, and it has to be spelled out. Not the exact sanctions -- that's what causes so much angst over players selling jerseys -- but a policy for what will qualify for this new sort of sanction. That it won't be the crime, but a plot orchestrated by officials at the highest level of an athletics department that will qualify a school for the kind of crushing sanctions that Penn State now faces.

Do we know that this will work, that it will deter the next coach consumed with the goal of winning at all costs from trying to protect one of his henchmen after hideous crimes? No. We don't know that it will work.

But we know that doing nothing won't work. The outcome of that approach is clear from what happened at Penn State, and from the wreckage and pain and mangled morality it's left behind.