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Dear Media: Stop Calling for PSU Death Penalty

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By Jim Weber

I’ve been known to call out the NCAA and president Mark Emmert from time to time but now it’s time to turn the finger around and point it at the sports media for demanding the NCAA issue the “death penalty” to Penn State.

As soon as the Freeh Report was released on Thursday, it felt like every sports writer in America with a column screamed at the top of their lungs that the NCAA should shut down the Penn State football program for at least a year (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here - to name a few).

I’m here to tell you that these arguments are fundamentally flawed and just another result of a knee-jerk culture in which the media always feels the need to say something provocative to be heard and keep the 24-hour news cycle spinning with debate and controversy.

Look, I’m equally as outraged about the Jerry Sandusky scandal and fully believe that Joe Paterno’s statue should be removed from the front of Beaver Stadium because it no longer stands for integrity.

And I realize that the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State is the biggest scandal in the history of college sports. But the reaction from the media about how to punish Penn State has seemingly turned into a pissing match among the media to show who is the most outraged:

“Take down JoePa’s statue!”

“Give them the death penalty!”

“Shut down the entire university!”

A large portion of the public thinks Penn State should be handed the death penalty just because they are angry at what took place and are disgusted by the Paterno apologists that still remain in Happy Valley. But media members should base their opinions on facts instead of raw emotions and be above leading an angry mob with pitch forks.

Of course, you don’t make headlines arguing that Penn State shouldn’t get the death penalty. As a result, everyone seems to be reaching for the publicity Sports Illustrated received in 1995 when Alex Wolff famously wrote a letter to the University of Miami about why they should drop the football program - one of the most legendary articles in SI history.

And in this digital media world where everyone is fighting for page views and SEO optimization, sites are viciously competing to come up first on Google search results for “Penn State death penalty.”

But of all the calls for Penn State to receive the death penalty, I’ve yet to read one column that makes anything close to a valid argument. People forget that SMU was handed the death penalty in 1987 because it egregiously broke NCAA rules and had a history of being placed on probation. The message clearly wasn’t getting through, leaving the NCAA almost no choice. But in this case, Penn State broke federal laws, not NCAA rules.

People don’t seem to grasp that and make hollow arguments like the following:

“If programs are sanctioned for “lack on institutional control,” Penn State HAS to get the death penalty!”

This is the laziest argument for the death penalty. Sure, Penn State egregiously violated “institutional control” when defined by a dictionary but the NCAA doesn’t hand out punishments based on that. It goes by the NCAA rulebook’s definition of institutional control.

And did anyone who actually made this argument bother to look up how “lack of institutional control” is defined there? As much as people would like it to, that definition doesn’t apply to this case.

“Ohio State and USC got bowl bans for their infractions, which look like nothing compared to this!”

Yes, those cases look very trivial compared to the Sandusky scandal. That’s why no one related to those scandals (aside from the tattoo parlor owner who was laundering drug money) is in jail while Sandusky finds himself behind bars for life while athletic director Tim Curley and ex-Gary Schultz, the university’s former senior vice president for finance and business, have been indicted for perjury and ex-school president Graham Spanier could soon find himself in jail as well.

The Buckeyes and Trojans were hammered for breaking NCAA rules. I have yet to find anyone that can prove Penn State broke NCAA rules in the Sandusky scandal. You can argue that the NCAA should update its bylaws to have a personal-conduct policy like the NFL (although that obviously gets very tricky) but you can’t argue that the NCAA is a draconian organization and then tell them to rule outside their jurisdiction just because we are all outraged.

“This will send a message to other schools that something like this will never happen again! This will show everyone that universities are about academics not athletics! This will give Penn State a fresh start! If they don’t get the death penalty, the coverup will have served its purpose!”

These are just examples of arguments based on the results of giving Penn State the death penalty instead of actually proving the death penalty is within the NCAA’s jurisdiction. I won’t even bother disproving them because they are based on a false premise that the ends justify the means when it comes to NCAA punishment. The U.S. legal system can’t step outside the law just because it deems something unfair and the NCAA can’t as well, as much as many people would understandably like it to in this case.

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This whole sequence reminds me a lot of the death of Len Bias, when law makers were so eager to prove how outraged they were that common sense went out the window. After the Maryland star overdosed on cocaine in 1986, politicians in Congress got into a pissing match to show who was the toughest on the “it” drug of the 1980s, resulting in a 100:1 quantity ratio from crack cocaine to powder - meaning the punishment for 1 gram of crack cocaine was equal to that of 100 grams of regular cocaine - that resulted in insanely unjust prison sentences that are still affecting people to this day.

This entire scandal is obviously a travesty of epic proportions and if you want to argue the NCAA should update its bylaws or that Penn State should shut down the football program itself, go for it.

But don’t cry for the NCAA to issue the death penalty just to shout the loudest.

Jim Weber is the managing editor of LostLettermen.com. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays.

 
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