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Main entrance of Old Main, at Penn State Unive...

Main entrance of Old Main, at Penn State University, University Park, Pennsylvania. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not the greatest sports buff in the world. I know a few facts and trivial statistics, and I can tell you some stories about some great games I once saw. But I’m not really the best commentator on the technicalities of the game.

What I do know centers, obviously, on the way the Church works, particularly in the area of human relationships. For example, I understand that when tragedy strikes, people pull together. Folks start to draw on their traditions and their long held beliefs. And when one of our number is struck down, we come together and absorb the damage as best we can, distributing the stress and pain across a broader platform.

I think the same thing is happening at Penn State.

Players and fans are being punished for crimes committed off the field and apart from the athletic program. Rather than the guilty parties suffering at the hands of the NCAA, the entire university is being punished. The cry of “improper hero worship” may apply, but that doesn’t diminish the severity of the discipline that has been handed down. While Joe Pa‘s status and prestige almost certainly contributed to the cover up, that status and prestige was otherwise well-deserved.

And the pain of the punishment is being absorbed across an entire culture, a dispersed community of Penn State fans when it should be dangling sharply over the small group of back room officials and administrators who conspired to keep the crimes a secret.

But there is no sharp point on this punishment. It is a blunt instrument, bludgeoning athletes, coaches, staff, alumni, and fans who knew nothing of these horrible crimes. And so an entire program has been gutted and a legacy of a proud university has been undermined by the crimes of one assistant and the cover-up perpetrated by numerous officials at Penn State.

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Joe Patern...

Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno on the sideline during warmups prior to the 2006 Homecoming game versus the University of Illinois on Friday, October 20, 2006. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Such a tragedy is unparalleled on the Penn State campus, and hard to find without doing a little research. You’d have to know someone from the University of Kentucky basketball program for the 1952–53 season. Or maybe the basketball program at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) for the 1973–74 and 1974–75 seasons. There’s the tragic demise of the Southern Methodist University football program for the 1987 and 1988 seasons and the men’s soccer program at Morehouse College for the 2004 and 2005 seasons. You also have the Division III men’s tennis program at MacMurray College for the 2005–06 and 2006–07 seasons.

Each of these schools earned the Death Penalty, as it is so often called by fans, coaches, and athletes alike. In each of those situations, the NCAA banned the program from participating in that particular sport for at least a year. In each situation, the program benefited from a rules infraction that gave their athletes an unfair advantage.

While Penn State will not suffer the Death Penalty, the severity of the sanctions will result in near identical damage to the program. It has taken SMU more than two decades to rebuild its program. USAToday summarized it this way:

[In] Penn State’s case, the NCAA confronted a scandal unlike any the association had ever seen. The wrongdoing, while egregious, did not reflect traditional violations of NCAA bylaws. And no obvious competitive advantage was gained by the cover-up of criminal activity.

Surely, there is a better way for the NCAA to react. Surely, they can apply a more surgical solution with a precision that will spare the innocent and punish the guilty.

Worst of all, Joe isn’t around to defend himself nor to offer explanation. If he knew, and it appears he did, then the infractions are indefensible. But the punishment comes to far too many. And the innocent help to pay the price for the guilty — again.

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