Crippling. Devastating. A de-facto death penalty. These were the supercharged terms that sports media used to describe the penalties imposed on a legendary college football program after a major scandal. Past victories were vacated, scholarships were eliminated, and the team was banned from postseason play.
The team in question, in case you’re wondering, was not Penn State. It was the University of Southern California, just two years ago, in the aftermath of the Reggie Bush gift scandal. However harsh the penalties were, they did not knock the football team off its pedestal at USC. Indeed, the Trojans were so “devastated” that they merely went 10-2 last year. And recent preseason polls rank USC as number one or number two in the country.
This is a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks the penalties meted out in another case — to Penn State — will do much to change that university’s football culture. Last month, the National Collegiate Athletic Association hit Penn State with a four-year bowl ban and a four-year cap on athletic scholarships because of the program’s role in covering up child molestation by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The NCAA, which considered simply suspending Penn State football, stopped short of doing so.
Yet, as USC’s experience shows, as long as the games keep going, no punishment matters. Schools like USC and Penn State have so much of their identity wrapped up in their football teams; derive so much money from the sport; and are so reluctant to disrupt alumni, merchants, and fellow conference members that they will never change their priorities on their own.
NCAA President Mark Emmert claimed that Penn State’s penalties will change the the school’s athletic culture, and the conventional wisdom is that it could take a decade for the program to recover. But at USC, top players stayed, and top recruits kept coming. Despite the bowl ban, their average home attendance of 75,000, while lower than in the Reggie Bush years, was still better than that of many National Football League teams. The Trojans were still on national television in the regular season.
The irony was that USC coach Lane Kiffin was right that the sanctions would be less than met the eye. “I don’t think it’s going to have an impact on recruiting,” he said in 2010.
“. . . we do not feel the impact at all, because USC is still USC.” A similar mind-set makes it clear why Penn State president Rodney Erickson did not contest a mere bowl ban, after reportedly talking the NCAA out of a complete four-year shutdown of the program.
Consider the numbers: Penn State is one the top three most profitable college football teams in the nation, netting $53 million in the 2010-11 school year, drawing 101,000 fans a game, and claiming a statewide economic impact of over $160 million a year. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett said the economic engine of Penn State football affects “the entire state.” These factors make it impossible — at least in the minds of Penn State and the NCAA — to kill football.
Sure enough, new Penn State coach Bill O’Brien sounds no more crippled than USC’s Kiffin did. O’Brien boasts his players will still play in front of 108,000 people every home game, and players can still develop for the NFL. As Penn State awaited sanctions, O’Brien said he begged Erickson and acting athletic director Dave Joyner, “Let us play football, and let us be on TV.” He got his way.
The NCAA could have sent a supreme message by shutting down the program. One prime reason that Emmert gave for not doing so was because it would have brought “unintended harm to many who had nothing to do with this case.” But the biggest reason of all that Sandusky was out of control was the unchecked power granted to Penn State football by everyone in the cult — from trustees to fawning fans to T-shirt sellers. Ultimately, Penn State and the NCAA declared the sale of a stadium hot dog more important than the safety of a child.
Penn State will serve out its penalties, and perhaps lose a few more games than it’s accustomed to. But the school’s ability to talk its way out of a shutdown symbolizes college football’s never-ending cycle of arrogance.