Southern Methodist University (SMU) received the “Death Penalty” in 1987 when they were banned from playing the football season based on their countless NCAA violations through the 1986 season. Years after SMU received the Death Penalty, it is still viewed as the most harsh penalty the NCAA has ever given out — and is still routinely thrown around when schools (like Penn State) repeatedly break NCAA rules and/or laws. The question I have, however, centers around the fairness of the “Death Penalty” when the NCAA has created a system and enabled membership schools to essentially do whatever is necessary to fill stadium seats, sell merchandise, and do whatever possible to continually drive revenues through the roof? The Penn State scandal aside (as that is more of an anomaly when talking about the traditional types of violations commonly in jeopardy of the Death Penalty), is it fair for the NCAA to have the Death Penalty in its arsenal to use against schools “breaking the rules,” when the NCAA has helped turn college sports into something far more important and invaluable than, ironically, academics? Do you think professors in the Math Department would have looked the other way if one of their own were raping kids? Of course not, but the math professors are also not tempted by millions of dollars to keep quiet, either.
All bets are off these days when it comes to what the NCAA will “tolerate” as it applies to driving revenues. The NCAA plays with fire literally every waking moment as it casually looks the other way, ignores, and even allows for special provisions for top teams when there are problems (like when Ohio State was able to use their Tatt-5 players for the Sugar Bowl game, even though they had been suspended). This makes fiscal sense for the NCAA, as more fans = greater revenue, and don’t think for a moment the NCAA is going to leave money on the table. So in theory the NCAA wants honesty, integrity, and fairness, but it also seems to only break out its teeth when it absolutely has to. As they say, “the facts is what they is.”
So now we have Penn State in jeopardy of receiving the Death Penalty, allowing critics to question just how, when, and why the Death Penalty should be used in college sports. Clearly Penn State deserves harsh punishment for the horrific crimes that occurred on campus, and Jerry Sandusky is already paying for his actions by being jailed for life. But would Sandusky’s crimes have been identified and responded to much, much sooner if Penn State had not prioritized football as being more important than anything else in life? And this view of PSU sports did not happen in a vacuum, but instead because of the great latitude the NCAA gives to schools these days that drive huge revenue. What I am trying to say is that if college football at Penn State weren’t so incredibly (fiscally) valuable, it’s very unlikely anyone at PSU would have looked the other way, ignored, or interfered with having Jerry Sandusky arrested years earlier — and well before many more children were victimized by his actions.
So is the “Death Penalty” the answer – or are we at a cross-roads where the entire college sport model gets turned on its head and re-evaluated with respect to its place within a college and how that relates to academic priorities? Is it time to begin to control and regulate revenues more closely so that individual coaches and entire sport teams are not so worshiped that people completely ignore developing problems? To me it doesn’t make a lot of sense for the NCAA to even have the Death Penalty as an option with their current “money-first” ideology they have developed and enabled their member schools to follow. Either completely separate college sports from colleges, or dramatically change the landscape so that we don’t have to witness another college president like Gordon Gee drool over his former football coach Jim Tressel while begging to “not be fired by the coach.” Having punitive measures is nice, but they are hardly worthwhile when there has been nothing done on the front end to prioritize integrity and playing by the rules. The message today is clear: Do whatever you need to do to win, and you and your school will be handsomely rewarded with millions of dollars. Oh, and if you do really, really bad things, the NCAA might taunt you with the Death Penalty.