Ordinarily, with the passing of Joe Paterno and the incarceration of Jerry Sandusky, the Penn State story would be considered closed. But it seems like it is just now unfolding.
The extent of Sandusky’s horrors were presented in court. But the involvement of Paterno and other officials at Penn State continues to be revealed. College football never has been marred by a more sordid and tragic picture. Yet despite causing the kind of wrath that makes you want to spit, and the level of sorrow that prompts you to weep, does it belong in the bailiwick of the NCAA? And should that organization bring the hammer down with the ultimate blow?
All the dirt hasn’t been unearthed regarding the child sexual abuse allegations. “A man is innocent until proven guilty,” and all that. What the public has been getting lately is intermittent blurbs about shocking irresponsibility through the exposure of internal e-mails. But if it all turns out to be true, Penn State’s football program deserves the death penalty from the NCAA. (Enacted only once, against SMU in 1987, the "death penalty" involves shutting down the entire football program for an unspecified period of time.)
That means administering to it a lethal injection of moral and ethical outrage, then burying it.
The simmering issue is not Penn State’s guilt or innocence in the Sandusky matter, because that was determined soon enough when an internal report was released Thursday.
When this scandal broke, it appeared to fit squarely in the domain of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. It didn’t feel as if the NCAA had any business in it. The NCAA has enough on its plate trying to nail assistant coaches for buying a hamburger for an athlete.
I always felt the NCAA should restrict itself to competition-based offenses. But this Penn State calamity IS a competition-based offense.
If the worst is true, then Paterno and other officials at Penn State covered up Sandusky’s crimes because they wanted to protect the sanctity of the football program and make sure it continued unfettered, winning games and raking in cash.
CNN reported that emails were exchanged in 2001 among Penn State administrators suggesting a cover-up, and that the e-mails intimated that Paterno had knowledge about the decision not to report the allegations made against Sandusky to outside authorities. If that is true, that means a conspiracy existed to keep football program running smoothly and without interference.
That is a competition-based offense, regardless of the hideous nature of the acts at the center of it all.
Also, CNN reported how powerful an overlord Paterno was at Penn State, and how he and others around him bullied anyone who poked their noses into the running of the program, including the meting out of punishment to players who ran afoul of the law or the rules. Vicky Triponey, then vice president of student affairs in charge of disciplining students, called Paterno’s behavior “atrocious” in an e-mail to then-Penn State president Graham Spanier and said, “I am very troubled by the manipulative, disrespectful, uncivil and abusive behavior of our football coach.”
Who knows what happened in each case of player discipline at Penn State over the course of Paterno’s long career? It would be wrong to assume that Paterno was always more lenient with his guys than the VP of student affairs would have been. And if you condemned a major college football coach every time he acted boorishly toward someone in the school’s administration, your condemning schedule would be completely full.
Paterno’s alleged actions and behavior outside of the Sandusky matter are only relevant in that they apparently reveal the magnitude of the fiefdom the legendary head coach created, resulting in what appears to have been an atmosphere of fear and intimidation when it came to a desire for transparency from the outside.
That brings us to Sandusky, and the NCAA.
It’s all intertwined. If the reports are correct, Paterno’s strongman tactics were applied to doling out penalties to players who got involved in off-campus fights, and they also were used to sweep Sandusky's horrible deeds under the rug. The coach’s iron-fisted reign over the football program apparently included overseeing his players while turning a blind eye toward his former defensive coordinator.
Why would he have done all that? Football. What is the NCAA in charge of regulating? Among other sports, football.
The NCAA surely never has seen anything quite like this. A sexual predator not only being protected from detection by one of its member institutions, but allowed to continue his abhorrent behavior? It sounds like some storyline concocted for an episode of a network procedural. The fact that it was real is beyond chilling.
Again, the NCAA doesn’t yet know all the facts. But it can prepare in case all the facts add up to the worst possible outcome. Since it has been determined that Penn State knew a lot more than it let on — including possible involvement by its late football coach in keeping silent about Sandusky’s actions — then the NCAA should prepare to hand down its death penalty to a Division I football program for only the second time in its history, after Southern Methodist University received it in 1987.
This one time the public should welcome the NCAA’s heavy hand.
Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to NBCSports.com. Follow him on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/MichaelVentre44