Sunday, July 29, 2012

Disgust at Power

So, I'm still mulling over the NCAA's penalty levied on Penn State. In some ways, my frustration might be misplaced. Is my focus being unnecessarily pulled from the crimes committed by Jerry Sandusky and university leaders, including Joe Paterno? That's fair. At the same time, I see a well-established legal process taking place in which accused and witnesses get their day in court. The justice there isn't always delivered fairly or evenly. And it is legitimate to claim that there is no prison sentence that atones for the crimes Sandusky or the university's leaders committed. Still, there are clearly-defined rights and procedures. There are guidelines by which penalties are meted out. And, normally, there isn't collateral damage when the jury or judge renders a decision.

My faith in our justice system, as imperfect as it is, allows me to move on from what is to be done legally, both in the criminal and civil realm, with the wrongdoers.

So my frustration festers with what has happened to the athletes and the program in a sport, college football, for which my interest has always been secondary.

There was no way the NCAA could appropriately penalize Penn State. No matter what it did, its penalties were going to be too lenient or too strict. Rather than have a choice to be fair or unfair, the NCAA had the choice between exercising symbolic power or structural power. In other words, it had the choice between leveling a penalty that was going to be short but stunning in its power or to be long-lasting and leveling in its power.

It chose the latter.

Supposedly, the NCAA's crippling sanctions were to show that athletics were to never again trump the well-being of children. It was to be a reminder to the nation's big-time universities and athletic programs to re-prioritize their interests, putting students and integrity before the win-at-all-costs ethos that has become big-time college athletics.

Baloney. Within hours of the NCAA's announcement, Happy Valley was teeming with rival coaches looking to poach players from Penn State's program. From what I understand, three coaches actually contacted the Penn State coach out of courtesy saying that they intended to exercise their exceptional right to recruit Penn State players for transfer to their own programs.

Since the next potential Nittany Lion players with the potential to play on a team unencumbered by sanctions are sitting in 4th grade classrooms, the NCAA has upended the competitive balance of elite college football. Since Penn State isn't the only Big 10 program undergoing sanctions, the entire conference is weak, which gives the SEC time to maintain its hegemony over the world of college sports. And the sanctions' most crippling effects will be felt more like five years from now, when, as a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist pointed out, is when the dearth of scholarships will actually cut into the depth chart, the Nittany Lions' rivals will be able to count on PSU matches as given wins.

In the zero-sum game that is big-time college athletics, Penn State's loss is everyone else's gain. And the cynic in me doesn't believe for a minute that those coaches who benefit aren't cluck-clucking that the "grand experiment" collapsed. Their likely conclusion: Penn State tried to beat the system and then covered up horrible lies to preserve the image that really couldn't wield sufficient power to beat the system.

In other words, I don't think the connection between child welfare and program sanctions will be as clear to the other programs and its leaders as it seems to be right now to the public.

Moreover, I think time will show this to be an exceptional display of power than a meaningful one. This was an anomaly. The NCAA didn't ride to the rescue, investigate, and penalize as would a sheriff breaking up a crime ring. It didn't wield any power that wasn't given to it. Penn State investigated itself. The University's new leadership offered to confess, allocute, and submit to punishment out of regard to the severity of crimes committed. I don't criticize the university's leadership for taking that approach. What happened was that horrible. But how rare is it for a big-time university to yield like this? How likely is it that the next time a university or big-time program falls short of its ethical obligations that they will meekly and humbly submit to the NCAA's justice? I would argue it's even less after what Penn State was shown after it did so.

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So why am I so fixated on this? Well, I'm a teacher. My whole professional life has been within the confines of educational institutions. Penn State, the NCAA, and football are all institutions as well, though certainly much more massive than what I work within. Like those institutions, those in which I work are trusted with the care and uplifting of children.

Also, like those institutions, the schools in which I work can be environments in which bigger-than-life people and too-big-to-be-disciplined programs can thrive. At Penn State it was a coach and a football team. At some universities it's a basketball team and its coach. At some high schools it's a choir director, a band director, a football coach, an extraordinarily influential classroom teacher. There are ample opportunities for people to erect cults of personality and wield power over individuals who are relatively powerless: students, parents in the minority. These opportunities exist within an environment where people place a lot of trust in adults to protect the welfare of youth.

And it is from that perch that I have come to believe in the power of symbols. Suspending the Penn State football program for one year would have been a powerful symbol. It would have provided a year in which fans, students, players, faculty, and coaches reassessed the meaning of that program in relation to the other meaningful elements of life. When something seems so big that others cannot live without it, that is precisely the time for an institution to experiment with life without it.

Sometimes a pause offers the occasion for solemnity, thought, and penance far more than does a beating or lashing.

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