The “Death Penalty” of Football

Statue of Joe Paterno, from the Christian Science Monitor

Last week, shocking new revelations were brought to light in the Jerry Sandusky-Child Sex Abuse case as the Freeh Report was released. The report made by former FBI director Louis Freeh, who was hired by Penn State, detailed the cultural breakdown of Penn State University that allowed the heinous abuse of young boys by the former defensive coordinator to continue nearly unencumbered for more than 14 years. Freeh names names. Names like former PSU president, Graham Spainer, former vice president, Gary Schultz, former athletic director, Tim Curley, and most shocking of all beloved football coach, Joe Paterno. Media outlets from CNN and The Washington Post, to TMZ and ESPN have covered the main points of the 200+ page findings, and they are horrific.

Reports of breaches in confidence, publicity valued above children’s safety, abuses of power, and even greed. The most sobering of statements made at the report’s release may be this one:

Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State. The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.

Now the question is being raised, what next?

Sandusky has been convicted on 45 counts of sexual abuse, and faces more than 300 years in prison, Curley and Schultz also face charges related to the possible cover-up of Sandusky’s actions, Spainer and others are being considered for indictments, and Joe Pa, who was fired after more than 50 years in football, ultimately died last January after battling cancer.

It may seem trivial in light of the absolute tragedy these boys faced, but what will the NCAA do in response to these findings? Some have suggested and the “death penalty” – a penalty that effectively stops a football program from operating for a year or more. This penalty has been levied only once in NCAA football history against Southern Methodist University in 1987-88 when it was found that University actually paid its players. It has diminished the program to irrelevance ever since.

There have been debates about the appropriateness of this penalty in light of the Sandusky case. Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic of Mike and Mike in the Morning, suggest that such a penalty punishes the coaches, players, and students who are left behind and is therefore inappropriate. They are not alone in this assessment.

I love Mike and Mike in the Morning… but I have to disagree.

The NCAA has punished universities – most recently and publicly USC and Ohio State – for what I think are pretty trivial offenses. In the aforementioned SMU case, the university still has the residual stigma from their penalty. And in all those cases the coaching staff and players involved are gone, untouched by these punishments. The penalties were harsh for these universities, I believe, in order to change the culture of the football program – so these programs would understand they could not merely violate rules to gain a leg-up on recruiting or to protect their star players.

Of all the things the Freeh Report points out it is the nature of the culture of PSU. One janitor reported that after seeing an incident involving Sandusky and one of the victims he was scared to say anything for fear of losing his job. He said, “Football runs this university.”

Football is only a game, and so for a janitor, a head football coach, a university president, and others to hold their tongues while trusting and vulnerable boys are being tortured is unimaginable and inexcusable. For someone to say that football creates a culture that would look the other way while tragedies like this continue is maddening. But see, the culture really is only partially about football, and is more about what football brings in: money.

The Christian Science Monitor pointed out that Penn State football brings in more than $50 million annually according to Forbes, and and its value is still more than $400 million. With a program generating dollars like that, the culture of any organization is bound to revolve around it. In order for the culture to change its financial center has to be disrupted, unhinged, refocused.

Lest you think I am overtly cynical, I know that college football is about more than generating profits. I cheer unabashedly for the University of Alabama, and on a recent trip to Tuscaloosa, AL I saw just how much the social structure and morale of the college were based on the football program.

In Matthew 5:29-30 Jesus said,

29  If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

He reiterates this point again just a few chapters later in Matthew 18 saying,

 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.

Now, Jesus is not literally calling us to tear off our arms or gouge out our eyes. If he was, then his disciples would have immediately had to take out their hacksaws and knifes and begin the self-mutilation process. What he is saying that if we sin, in order to defeat that sin in our lives we have to be willing to make life-altering changes. We have to cut off relationships that are treacherous to our souls. We have to be willing to leave jobs that are detrimental to our faith. They are not easy decisions to make, and they may even be painful. The Bible even teaches that without the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives they are impossible… But without these sort of experiences we can’t expect to grow, or really see anything change in our lives.

The sin culture in our hearts has to be cut out… In Acts 7:51 Stephen accuses the Pharisees of having “uncircumcised hearts” – There has to be a cutting out in order to make real change.

In Romans 6 Paul goes so far as to say that all those who are in Christ have died or crucified their sin through him. The death penalty Jesus bore on the cross is the power we have to put to death the sin in our lives. Dismemberment, death those are radical and severe, but they are necessary when dealing with something serious.

It’s true with everyone of us. We have poisonous areas that we guard, even though we know they are killing us. Thoughts, secret-actions, the stuff we’re not proud of… and we are unwilling to cut them out because they have become so important to us… even if they seek to tear us down.

I think the same thing has happened at Penn State. Football is king, and it caused seemingly intelligent and powerful men – men who seem moral, to turn a blind eye to the disgusting actions against helpless victims. It was all caused by the culture, and in order for the culture to change somethings have to be cut out, somethings have to die.

This is not a trivial matter. It is sin. It is evil. Those things have to be dealt with an equal measure of seriousness in our personal lives and in institutions.

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