Brad Hirschfield: Did the NCAA get it right or did they go too far in punishing Penn State. Was their response ethical? Wise?

Jul 24, 2012

Did they use a bomb when they should have used a scalpel? Did they fail to distinguish between collective responsibility and collective guilt when NCAA officials sanctioned Penn State?

Brad Hirschfield discussed this topic with readers at 12 p.m. ET about this topic. Submit questions and opinions for Brad to respond to now.

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Too far?  Not far enough?  Just right?  No, not Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the NCCAA and Penn State.  Seems to me that they went too far AND not far enough, and that is because the NCAA confused, among other things, collective guilt and collective responsibility.


What is the purpose of the punishments which the NCAA doled out?  Will they actually accomplish their goals?  Does anyone even care about the ethics of punishment, or is it just about making ourselves feel better because in doling out punishments we make ourselves feel morally superior to those we punish?


Let's get started!



The headline "cooks the books." It never asks the third question. Many of us think the punishment didn't do far enough. The entire football program at Penn State should have been shut down for 3-4 years. The $60 million fine is the amount the football program will make in one year. So big whoot-t-do.

How lovely for you that 60 million dollars is no big deal!  Would you feel differently if they were your dollars?


To be clear, you may well be correct that the NCAA should have done more.  I agree that program closure might well have been the way to go, but to lose a year of gross income, no matter what one's business is, is a very big deal.


I am curious how you came to the decision that 3-4 years would have been the appropriate amount of time?  why not 1?  Why not 10?  Let's face it, you went with your gut, and even if you have stumbled into the correct conclusion, it's no way for a national governing body to make policy.

I've been reading several legal blogs, and they all seem to be saying the same thing: if you remove the emotional component to the Penn State scandal (admittedly not an easy task), legally the NCAA overstepped its bounds, because the NCAA has no laws on the books pertaining to what happened. And as such, the NCAA has no jurisdiction the case. Legally, they were required to give Penn State due process, which obviously didn't happen. Me personally, I find it more ironic that Jerry Sandusky, the actual person who committed the crimes in question, got more due process than Penn State and Joe Paterno have.

I would point out that the NCAA is a voluntary organization and it followed its own organizational rules, so what we normally think of as "due process" is not actually material.  That said, it sounds like neither of us is a lawyer, so we should probably leave the legal wrangling to them.


That Sandusky is get more due process is also appropriate for ethical reasons.  The stiffer the potential penalty and harm to the one convicted, the more carefully those prosecuting the crime must be.  That is one of the things that allow us to dole out tough punishment when we must.

Why do the student athletes have to suffer? All their hard earned efforts in winning those past games from 1998 to 2010 games are now negated, when they knew nothing of what was going on and had nothing to do with it. Winning those games was just not about Joe Pa, they had something to do with the success of the program.

I agree, and wrote about this in my column yesterday.  Check it out after the chat.


Bottom line, in their efforts to assure that Paterno's legacy would include his off field failings along with his on field victories, the NCAA engaged in historical revisonism -- never wise -- and stripped others who did nothing wrong of well-deserved credit.  What they should have done is asterisk the coach's record, not the team's.

We have to separate the sin from the sinner. Certainly, Joe Pa did wrong because he had the power to do something to end it once and for all. What I am concerned about is that he really was a leader in another area which was coaching and he had good technical abilities in that area which we can learn from. Now it seems that he is completely being decimated. We as humans are not all good or all bad. Only God is a constant.

Not sure that even God is constant, given that only a few chapters into the Genesis narrative, God experiences regret over the creation of humans, but that is a conversation for another time and place.  Your point however is interesting.  Wrong, I think, but interesting.


Coaches, at least in academic settings, are charged with more than winning.  In fact, Paterno built his reputation and a great deal of fame on being keenly aware of that obligation.  Turns out that in a very significant and systemic way, he failed to fulfill that obligation. 


As to separating sins from sinners, that is like saying that matches start forest fires, not people.  Smokey the Bear taught us the folly of that approach long ago, so while I appreciate the attempt at mercy in every case, I think here it is misplaced.

Although the horrific circumstances of the PSU debacle are, I hope, unique to PSU, the cult of personality that allowed them to believe that cover-up was preferable to admitting Sandusky's crimes is not unique. Whether it is the coache(s), any player(s), or the sports program in general, the overbearing issue is that "sports and the team are all that matters". I gather they are real cash cows for the universities, but students are also assessed a considerable fee for supporting the sports programs. NOTHING that could ever be assessed can give those young men their lives back. THis is one step, if they know that PSU is being punished for their inaction.

You are certainly correct that any time we think any one thing is all that matters, trouble is sure to follow.  That is true about a sport, a religious conviction, a politcal orientation or anything else.  Fanaticism about anything is always dangerous and often deadly.


You are also correct that lives were forever changed and may have been destroyed by the crimes committed at PSU, both crimes of comission by Sandusky and crimes of omission by others such as Paterno.  The larger challenge is making that less likely in the future and I fear that opportunity was at least partially lost by the NCAA.

I think the NCAA was being political and trying to appear that they absolutely abhor child abuse, and what decent person doesn't. I think they were also giving out a message to other colleges, warning them not to let this happen again. But really, to have college students also take the fall is nonsensical - those who are budding athletes and who had nothing to do with Sandusky's crimes and sins,

I agree that punishing past, current and future student athletes is misguided.  A strong response was called for, but they missed the mark with that.  In fact, it would have been more ethical to close the program, especially given that players can leave PSU and receive immediate player elgability elsewhere.  the NCAA confused the necessity of punishing the institution, whith punishing players.  They blew that one.

While it's true that one man committed crimes and victimized children, this is about the cover-up by those at the highest level of power at PSU. Starting with Paterno! And what is this non-sense put out by Spanier and Jay Paterno questioning the legitimacy of the Freeh report? Just read the email trail for god's sake!! Look, I feel sorry for the 'innocents' that are affected by the NCAA ruling, but that's just tough. We feel sorry for the innocent children of a father convicted of a crime too but we don't excuse the parent from serving jail time or what ever the penalty may be. The need for harsh penalties is bolstered by the fact that so many alums are still questioning Paterno's complicity and the fact that if he'd done the right and honorable thing, he could have directly prevented his assistant from sexually abusing other child victims. And when is Spanier going to be indicted? His letter to the Board is pathetic and another piece of evidence that a harsh penalty was appropriate.

For a person of obvioulsy deep moral sensitivity to the lives of some, you are pretty rough on others.  Your placing the word innocents in quotes kind of says it all.  Why not simply apply your approach fairly and equally to all i.e. punish all those who played a clear role in the crimes committed, a role either by comission or omission, and leave everybody else alone.


The only reason you would not do as I suggest is that like many people, you actually believe that the "real culprit" is college sports as a whole and this is your opportunity to "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out".  In that case, you are just wrong.

More of a comment than a question. Penn State Football is largely responsible for every other sports funding these days due to the vast profits every season. With people paying for seat licenses (under the guise of donations) , tickets and parking it helps fund the sports that just don't bring home the bacon. By essentially giving Penn State the death penalty how will these other sports survive? There is a reason I spent $2000 on football last year yet could have gone to a mens' wrestling match for $5 at the door.

You are certainly correct that the implications of the NCAA penalty are both institution-wide and systemic in nature.  Of course, so was the wrong-doing, so that is as it should be.  The university will now need to figure out how to pay for those athlectic programs which are being harmed not by the NCAA, but by the university's blindness and cover-up.  That is what collective responsibility is all about, and as wrong as collective guilt may be, collective responsibility is not wrong at all.

Mr. Emmert levies the NCAA sanctions against Penn Sate based upon the Freeh Report. Many believe the Freeh Report contains inaccurate information and is filed with holes, conjecture and giant leaps to conclusions. The Freeh report assignes motives to Penn State officials without ever interviewing them. Therefore I have two questions: Why did the NCAA rush to judgement against Penn State before due process in the American court of law? I get that the NCAA is an Association, not a a legal entity therefore is not beholden to the American judicial process. Which leads me to my second question: What would happen to the sanctions if Penn State officials are exonerated of charges?

"Many" believe there are serious flaws in the Freeh report?  Who?  What many?  Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting that the report is perfect of flawless, but it was conducted independantly and at the university's request, so I think that they need to live with the results -- at least until any actual proof that serious errors were made.


The NCAA can always walk back their decisions and in some cases, I wish that they would do so, but as teh old saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.  A response was called for, especially as this whole case was about delaying and denying the crimes committed against others for years.

Penn State's leadership now gets it but the Paterno family still considers themselves Royalty that everyone must check with before issuing any pronouncements on the formally great Joe Paterno. Why do they persist in issuing pronouncements when the issues are now so clear? What could a report of their own actually accomplish? Isn't their approach to challenge every sanction or decision on the matter not only hurting what is left of his (their) legacy but making them look ridiculous?

Probably it will, but unless someone close to the famil can help them to see that the legacy of the man they love will be best preserved when it is most honestly preserved, they are not likely to listen.  Frankly, I don;t know them but would love to try precisly because I don't think anyone should be defined by only their worst moments. Pretending that those moments never happened though is not only wrong, but means that reasonable people will simply decide that if that is the price of remembering the coach, it is probably better to simply forget him altogether.

The only part of the Penn State, as well as previous penalties to other schools, is the rewriting of history. I believe the final score at the end of the game should be that score, unless there is an immediate challenge to the score that is upheld by some league authority. What are the athletes who competed in these games to think that years later the results have been changed? I believe it diminished the victories for those athletes who did nothing wrong while meaning little to the athletes who were on the losing sides. It also is confusing to sports historians. I just am having trouble understanding what good rewriting history does. We don't go back into the history books and decide that one side fought dirty so therefore history will record they lost the war.

CORRECT!  historical revisionism is the work of the lazy, the hateful or the cowardly.  The real challenge here would have been to figure out how to recall that the winning'est coach in college footbal was also a moral loser at what might have been the most important moment in his life.  The re-write absolves all of us of that obligation and does little to prevent the problem in the future.

I would be more interested in that. No, the NCAA has no rule that states a college football coach may not cover up felonies for 13 years, and no there is no rule that states that a University President and Athlethic director cannot also help in the coverup. But this entire thing was done in the name of Penn State football. Do we really need to have people sitting in a room, thinking of the most atrocious activities that we think somebody might do? It was right for the NCAA to issue such a severe penalty- going to school is not about sports. It's about learning. Sports is/should be secondary to the education you receive, and these penalties did nothing to jeopardize that education

The issue is NOT the severity, it is the inelegance of its application.  They used a bomb when they needed a scalpel.  both can be used with great severity, but the later can more effectively avoid the innocent and also sculpt a final result with greater educative and protective impact.

Everytime I read an article about how the NCAA should have eliminated the football program at Penn State my blood boils. Do I think there should be harsh punishment for the people who allowed such crimes to happen and continue. Absolutely. Do I think that the servers, restaurant owners, shop owners, retail workers in State College should be punished right along with them? Unequivocal no. It's easy to say "bad things happen to good people' when it's not your friends who are in danger of losing their livelihood.

I agree that the cavalier attitude displayed by some with regard to the "collateral damge" issue is disturbing.  Truth is, most of them are not interested in the question because they believe that all those who enjoy or depend on college sports are somehow/somewhat guilty. 


At the same time, their will always be wider implications when an entire system failed, as it did at PSU.  Part of teh university's job now will be to mitigate that damage for itself, not simply coast on the revenue brought in by the program which helped hurt real people in unspeakable ways. 

Fairness isn't exactly a strong suit for the NCAA as a body, but I have to sympathize with them to some extent in this case. If they do nothing they look like they approve of Penn State's handling of the case. If, as they did yesterday, they bring down a hammer it looks like they were stampeded by public opinion. I'm not sure they had good options. I can only hope the impact is what the NCAA says it desires: The realization that no sport is worth losing your ethical compass.

They had many good options and I believe that the hammer needed to be brought down.  But just because one needs to bring down the hammer, one need not see the entire world as a nail. 


The NCAA lacked both sensitivity and imagination at a moment that demanded both.  In fact, the harsher the punishment, and harsh punishment was called for here, the more deftly it must be applied.  That is what allows decent people to take very tough stands without sacrificing their decency.

Is the NCAA's punishment severe enough? I hope it will push all fanatical sports enthusiasts into thinking about the mores of the game.

I certainly support your conclusion, but don't think that will happen here because the NCAA confused severity with sophisitcation -- though not entirely.  Their ruling about players being able to leave the team w/o any penalty was actually brilliant.  It reminded people that when you are loyal to a calling higher than "team", you should not be punished.  I so wish that the leaders at PSU had understood that when kids were being abused.

In order to answer the question, "Did the NCAA get it right or did they go to far in punishing Penn State?", I think we need to first agree on who is being punished for what action. I believe that the punishable action by the community is that it valued football so highly that Joe Paterno was enabled to have an extraordinary influence on the administration's decision making process. Joe Paterno's influence was so great that the rape of a child was not reported to the police in order to spare the university, its football team, and its head coach bad publicity. With that framing of the question, I think that discontinuing the football program at Penn State indefinitely would be an effective first step in changing the culture of the community.

I get it.  You hate college footbal and you hate it's fans so much that you blame them for failing to report what they did NOT know.  You do realize that makes no sense, right?


College football, like any sport, or anything else for that matter can and does breed ugly fanaticism, but not all fans are fanatics and your inability to make that disticntion is itself a form of fanaticism. 


I am curious about what you, or anybody else, thinks would actually address the fanaticism.  Rather than simply wish away the sport, what would make it healthier?

Hi Brad. As a professor at a school with high-profile athletics, I've been following the Penn State scandal closely. I was struck by the NCAA's decision not to impose the death penalty because it would hurt people who had done nothing wrong. Maybe, but don't we have a collective guilt here? If it weren't for our vast interest in sports, desire to watch them on tv, willingness to pay for tickets, trinkets, etc., what PR would Paterno & Co. have had to worry about? Maybe the death penalty wouldn't be so bad in that it would force everyone to go cold turkey for awhile and put sports in better perspective. BTW, when asked, many of my students say they chose to attend my school because of the sports program. Full stop.

The so-called death penalty -- itself a weird term given that nobody would actually die and a key issue here is people's out-sized connection to college sports -- may have been a good idea, especially as players are free to depart PSU for other programs and keep their immediate eligability.


The NCAA came at this primarily as a punitive issue, instead of also appreciating the cultural and educative issues involved,  That is why the response was oddly too severe in some ways, and not sever enough in others.

Well, once again, the hour is at hand and my hands are tired!


Thanks, as always, for so many interesting questions and comments.  We can continue the conversation if your find me on facebook or follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Til next week,


When I first started reading this chat, I was really impressed because you seemed to thoughtfully put together objective responses that didn't seem overly emotional or biased. I have to say though, in the last few chats that I've read, your responses have seemed to be more opinionated, partial, and characteristic of a columnist. Disappointing but maybe makes for a more lively chat? I don't always agree with your position but I really enjoy reading your comments to reader responses, whether they agree with mine or not because I felt like I learned more about the thought process behind other points of view, which helps me to think more about mine. Anyway, just a comment. I don't know if this is just a perception of mine or if it is an actual change in tone that has occurred.

Thanks for making that point.  It's something about which I need to think, and I will, I promise!

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Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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