On Jan 16, the NCAA restored 112 wins to the record of the Penn State University football program. One hundred and eleven of those wins belonged to former coach Joe Paterno, whose wins were stripped as part of the punishment stemming from the child molestation and sexual abuse scandal surrounding Paterno’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.
Paterno allegedly looked the other way on accusations of his colleague’s crimes for years and deserves to have his legacy permanently tainted by the Sandusky scandal; the NCAA has now made that impossible from an official standpoint.
The NCAA’s revision to Penn State’s win records restores Paterno’s winningest coaching legacy and allows the football program to exist free from a burden of guilt created by an inexcusable lack of oversight by its most legendary figure.
Historical memory in sports is inherently tied to the keeping of records, and removing Paterno’s wins, while not a means to rectify the evils permitted to occur on his watch, was at the very least a powerful symbolic punishment. But the NCAA’s backtracking only serves to make Paterno look victimized, essentially excusing him from the point of view of the NCAA.
Additionally, the NCAA has lifted all sanctions against Penn State, congruent with the university agreeing upon a final settlement figure. Now the university and the NCAA will act as if the scandal is firmly in the past, suggesting falsely that its effects had been resolved or rectified in some lasting manner. The NCAA could have dished out a harsher penalty that would have more firmly shown that Penn State’s inaction was unacceptable.
The financial punishment that remains now does little beyond helping to repair the school’s image. The reported $60 million payment that will go toward preventing child abuse in Pennsylvania does not even begin to make up for the fact that Paterno could have ended the abuse inflicted by his own coaching staff numerous times. Furthermore, it does not make up for the psychological trauma of Sandusky’s victims.
In the end, the NCAA’s sanctions were never actually about making Penn State and Paterno pay for the horrific child abuse they had possibly both enabled and failed to stop. This was an outcome of damage control in an effort to save face for both parties and to ensure the primacy of a prestigious football program, conference and governing body in the face of far more important ethical and moral failings.
Football occupies a prominent space in American society, but it is absolutely not where we should look for some kind of just or level-headed enforcement of moral or ethical standards. Unfortunately, the temporary punitive action taken against Penn State merely aimed to mitigate very justifiable public outrage and put the scandal in the rear view of the sport as quickly and quietly as possible. The outcome of this settlement with Penn State was about preserving football, not the welfare of children. The legacies of Penn State, Paterno, Sandusky and the NCAA should be tarnished by this episode, not whitewashed and glossed over.