Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why Stripping Scholarships Makes Sense (And Other Thoughts)

Early reports are that Penn State is facing a multi-year Bowl ban and "crippling" scholarship losses.

Whenever the NCAA metes out this kind of punishment, some complain is that it is unfair because all the wrongdoers are gone, so only the innocent are actually punished. This is essentially true.

But it is also essentially irrelevant. The purpose of these sanctions is to deter other schools from engaging in the wrongful conduct, not to get revenge on the wrongdoers. This is a legitimate reason to impose punishment.

Thinking of it this way also ends any debate about whether Penn State's athletic program is an appropriate target for NCAA punishment. It is, once you understand what the NCAA is really trying to deter.

Paterno and Spanier covered up the Sandusky scandal to increase the competitiveness of the football team. They were hiding the scandal so that their program and the their school didn't take a public relations hit that would hurt recruiting and morale. There may have been other reasons too, but mainly they did it to win football games.

Why would any decent human being—or even just a non-evil human being—sacrifice little children on the altar of winning football games? A review of history reveals only one reason why normal people do such awful things: greed.

It comes down to money. Wins = $$$. Losses = $. Multiple $$ hung in the balance, and apparently the little children were worth only one $, at most, in the Paterno / Spanier cost-benefit analysis.

The NCAA exists, ultimately, so that every big time school gets a fair chance at the $$$$$$$$$$$$ that is college sports. Sure, there is a lot of principled nonsense in the NCAA's charter, and all those non-revenue sports, but they are all a front (loss leaders, really) for the NCAA's true purpose: a mutual covenant about the fair distribution of profits from football and men's basketball.

So what the NCAA is trying to deter are actions that give a particular school an opportunity to win more than its fair share of games—in other words, to take more than its fair share of the profits. That is all the punishment is for. As noted above, the Sandusky cover up surely allowed Penn State to win more than its fair share of games, and therefore to make more than its fair share of the profits.

So, finally, to the matter of appropriate punishments. Bowl game bans are obviously appropriate because Bowl games are cash cows for athletic programs. Even in the Big Ten, which pools all the member-schools' Bowl money, there are huge economic advantages to the schools that actually go to the Bowls. You've got merchandizing; you've got booster events; you've got alumni pride leading to alumni giving; you've got recruiting advantages; etc. In other words, you've got $$$$$. So banning Bowl games hits them where it hurts.

But what about scholarships? Why does taking away free education make sense? Doesn't this just hurt the kids who would have gotten a fine education but now won't? To be sure, it does hurt those kids, but they are collateral damage. Remember: wins = $$$. Fewer scholarships means fewer wins. So fewer scholarships means less $$$. This is why stripping scholarships makes sense.

This is also why the death penalty for Penn State doesn't make sense. Sure, the death penalty would destroy Penn State and serve as a major deterrent for future conduct of this type. But it would also cause the NCAA's member programs to lose millions of dollars because of lost games and reworked television contracts. It would hurt the product. The death penalty is appropriate only for conduct that calls into question to the very integrity of the game—conduct that would make fans question whether the product is real or fake (in other words, whether games are rigged or essentially purchased by the highest bidder). It is hard to imagine the death penalty being imposed for anything less, at least nowadays. And, as bad as the conduct was at Penn State from a moral standpoint, it does not call into question the integrity of the product on the field.

1 comment:

  1. Good points. I agree that the punishment fit the situation for the NCAA. It will be interesting what happens to them in the legal system.
    One thing that occured to me is the power of denial. I feel that must have played a role, at least in the initial reaction by Paterno and others to the crime.
    My first reaction when I heard about the allegations was, what would I do if I was told a close friend of several decades was abusing kids. My guess is I would think that some kind of mistake was made, and there must be some other explaination. My guess is this is exactly what Paterno and others thought when faced with this situation.
    I would hope that given the same situation I and most others would at least go to the police and let someone else figure it out who knows what they are doing. Unfortunately, child abusers are good at deception, and given the ongoing problem of child abuse, too many people just don't see through them. Or don't want to.
    In the end, the PSU staff who covered this up deserve everything that comes to them through the NCAA and the legal system.