NCAA sanctions on Penn State football: Why only penalties?

Coming just after the removal of the Joe Paterno statue, the NCAA sanctions on Penn State will help the university make a cultural shift away from placing football first. But the NCAA itself also needs to reward schools already doing this.

Christopher Weddle/Centre Daily Times/AP Photo
The raised arm on the statue of former football coach Joe Paterno remained uncovered as workers removed the statue from the Penn State campus on Sunday. The university said it took down the monument after a report that found the late coach and three other top administrators concealed sex abuse claims against retired assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

For anyone ever drawn to watch a college sports event, there’s a lesson in the NCAA punishment of Penn State for its mishandling of the Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.

It’s not an easy lesson to absorb, given the popularity of college sports or the heroes it spins off, such as the late Penn State coach Joe Paterno. But it seems so necessary now that the National Collegiate Athletic Association itself, not just Penn State, must come back from the worst scandal in its history.

The lesson is this: We must all – including the casual watcher – treat college sports simply for what it is meant to be: as a source of learning for student athletes to grow in qualities such as grace, perseverance, excellence, and teamwork. It should not be built up as entertainment, as a reputation maker for a college, as a money raiser, or as a tool to woo college applicants.

The NCAA sanctions on Penn State will go far to correct the culture at the famed university. Penn State itself already seems on track to focus solely on the education of its student athletes and not maintain its sports reputation at any cost – thus the removal of the Paterno statue from the campus on Sunday. Two of the sanctions – a curb on participating at bowl games and a reduction of scholarships over four years – will send a strong message to the Penn State community that it can no longer reinforce the football program as something other than a teaching tool.

“Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing, and protecting young people,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in announcing the sanctions.

Yet as much as the NCAA has again affirmed the moral purpose of college sports – the teaching of integrity, for example – the governing body must learn itself that punishment and corrective actions are not enough. Too many scandals have engulfed NCAA sports in recent decades to simply rely once again on playing whack-a-mole with each new scandal.

To its credit, the NCAA has adopted many reforms, such as putting college presidents in charge of policy and raising graduation rates of student athletes. But is it possible for the NCAA to make a regular practice of commending – even rewarding – those colleges that keep their sports programs in moderation, and always in the perspective of education only?

If the NCAA can affirm schools that treat athletics as they do academics, that will do more to prevent scandals than all the fines, bowl bans, or other attempts at correction. The NCAA must also not condone giant stadiums, gold-plated athletic buildings, or other distorted spending on college sports programs. Instead, it can recognize colleges that don’t treat sports as a source of revenue and that keep sports budgets in line with spending on academics.

Fans of college sports can help push the NCAA to play up those schools that succeed in showing how much their student athletes are learning in sports, not how much they are winning. That would be the ultimate cultural shift.

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