Right now we are in the midst of arguably the worst scandal to have ever rocked college football, and not to sound like a broken record it is Penn State. We are all horrified as to what happened in Happy Valley. Only Lucifer himself would not be disturbed. With the Freeh Report out, there is even more outrage and calls for the NCAA to institute the dreaded death penalty.
That opinion is very common amongst the public at large, however the death penalty does more damage than any supposed good. In order to understand why the NCAA should not institute the death penalty, there must be a better understanding of how the death penalty impacts not only the convicted program, but also how it effects other programs. Look no further than the notorious “Pony Express” at SMU and how the death penalty not only destroyed SMU football for over twenty years and how the penalty also aided in destroying the Southwest Conference.
The death penalty as we know of it today originated in 1985 as a response to ongoing recruiting scandals. Especially the flagrant disregard schools in the SWC had for the NCAA’s bylaws. On one fateful meeting in New Orleans there was a vote amongst all Division 1-A to ratify the repeat violators clause, more commonly known as the death penalty. Every institution in the country voted for the new rule, except for a few Southwest Conference institutions like the University of Texas and, of course, SMU.
As we all know, SMU received the death penalty for essentially paying college football players professional contracts. SMU paid players as a means to compete against their fellow SWC schools for Texas recruits. SMU gained a competitive advantage from their actions. If there was any school that deserved to have their football program terminated for a season, it was SMU. Nobody is debating that aspect, but what nobody could predict was how the death penalty impacted the other schools in the Southwest Conference.
With the termination of SMU’s football program, not only was scheduling messed up, but it also helped erode the viability of the Southwest Conference as a whole. As the viability of the conference faded, schools started to defect. In 1991, the University of Arkansas (the only non-Texas school in the conference) left for the greener pastures of the SEC. Later in the 1990’s Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor left the SWC to join the Big 8 and create the Big 12. SMU has only recently recovered from the death penalty. It took the school over twenty years to get to a bowl game.
Now with the case of Penn State and the guillotine of the NCAA ready to drop on the collective head of the Penn State football program, level heads are needed to determine whether or not the death penalty is appropriate. On one hand the Penn State administration did shelter Jerry Sandusky, but those parties responsible have either died, been terminated, and will face their fate in both civil and criminal trials. Penn State will also be on the receiving end of massive lawsuits against the institution that will no doubt go into future law journals, record books, and our collective memory for its titanic size.
If the death penalty is implemented, Penn State’s football program will not be relevant or competitive for the forceable future, especially if the death penalty is coupled with additional years of bowl bans and television sanctions. The Big 10 might react to the implementation of the death penalty by causing another round of conference realignment in order to protect their conference championship game, because technically a 11 team conference cannot hold a championship. It will also force the Big 10 to renegotiate their television contracts with the likes of ESPN due to the demise of a once prominent program, meaning less revenue for not only Penn State, but all Big 10 member schools. If Penn State falls into oblivion, they might have to leave the Big 10, which would be terrible not only to Penn State, but to the conference as a whole.
I have been reading articles, watching videos on this matter in an obsessive manner that can only be compared with Howard Hughes’ irrational fear of germs. It is utterly depressing, but it is true. I am constantly trying to look at other commentators views on this matter, and the predominant views that can be found is that the death penalty is the only penalty that can be applied. Which, if that is the case, is a sad indictment on the simplistic black and white views held by many. Giving Penn State the death penalty would be the right thing to do, if not the only thing to do, if Penn State existed in a vacuum.
Sadly though, nobody and nothing operates in a vacuum. There are always unintended and harmful consequences to the most noble and just decisions. The death penalty is wrong on the basis that it is not only the recipient institution that suffers the consequences, everybody suffers.