Jerry Sandusky took vulnerable, needy children, and tried to steal their future. On Monday, the NCAA stripped Penn State of its past.
It's not an even trade. Not even if you throw in the $60 million in fines the NCAA also levied, or the millions Penn State will pay in damages to Sandusky's victims. Or if you add Sandusky's prison sentence, or the upcoming trials of Penn State administrators charged with covering up his predations.
But it's a start.
The NCAA's decision to strip Penn State of its 111 wins since 1998 — to strip Joe Paterno of his legacy as college football's winningest coach — is purely symbolic. But symbols can be important, too. "Success with honor" was supposed to be the Paterno way. Too many Penn State officials lacked the one, and now the NCAA has deprived it of the other. Whatever your feelings about Paterno's culpability, he wasn't the coach we thought he was. And now the record books reflect it.
That won't be enough for some. Critics will accuse the NCAA of copping out, because it chose not to suspend or terminate Penn State football entirely. They'll point out that the NCAA's fine could be covered with several months of football revenue. They'll reject NCAA President Mark Emmert's moralistic preening when he announced the sanctions July 23. And they won't be wrong.
"One of the grave dangers of our love of sports," Emmert told reporters, "is that the sports themselves become too big to fail." I doubt his penalties will change things, any more than tepid financial regulations shamed the Wall Street CEOs who defined the phrase "too big to fail" itself. One or two financial titans collapsed, but the rest just got bigger. And while Penn State struggles, others will prosper — and convince themselves that their own win-loss record testifies to their honor.
Still, grieving Penn State fans can take some solace in knowing that Joe Paterno, at least, was held accountable for what happened on his watch. Too few of our so-called leaders can say the same.
You could argue that Sandusky's crimes call out for plowing salt into the field of Beaver Stadium, so that nothing grows there ever again. So that no one ever derives joy from a program that concealed such suffering. As it stands, while the fans may be more subdued for a few weeks or a season, Happy Valley's Saturday-afternoon bacchanals will almost certainly resume. They may even be worse than before: One thing more irritating than a noisy drunk, after all, is a self-justifying one.
But as the lawyers will tell you, it's not clear the NCAA had power to order any sanctions at all. And in any case, for all the dollar signs attached to it, college football is still just a game. Nothing you do to a football program can ever match what Sandusky did to those children. That's why using the phrase "death penalty" to describe one proposed penalty — a multi-year team suspension — was so ludicrous.
And instead of the "death penalty," Penn State football will suffer a kind of walking death: four years with no chance of a bowl appearance. Its team will take the field with its horizons dimmed, its dreams tainted.
Is that unfair to Penn State's players, who had nothing to do with Sandusky's crimes, or the decisions that enabled them? Yes. But that's the thing: When the powerful sin, the innocent suffer. Penn State students may as well learn that now. It will be more painful after graduation.
In fact, Penn State administrators missed a chance to reinforce that lesson when, shortly after dawn last Sunday, they removed a beloved statue of Paterno from outside Beaver Stadium.
Instead of an empty space for fans to walk past, administrators should have left a scar. They should have left Paterno standing, but removed the frieze of football players trotting behind him, replacing them with the images of pleading children. Instead of seeing a beloved coach leading his team to glory, we would recognize Paterno's legacy for the cautionary tale it truly was. We'd remember him with his back turned to the children, his finger raised in the air.
His bespectacled eyes fixed on empty, elusive victory.