Penn State and Collective Guilt


I’m not a college football fan. I have mixed views on the role of the sport in higher education. I think that the emphasis on universities as sports entertainment centers draws attention away from their educational goals. I’d prefer to see teams sponsored by profit-making corporations, as is the case with universal football (soccer) in many other countries. I also recognize, though, that football does maintain alumni and wider public attachment to institutions. Also, the fact that many other people place importance on the major college sports gives these competitions legitimacy.

From my relatively neutral perspective, I see the NCAA sanctions on Penn State as completely unjustified and unjust. Jerry Sandusky should have been in prison a long time ago. Former university president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley, and vice president Gary Schultz should also face legal repercussions, possibly including jail time. But in the institutional penalties reasonable moral outrage has produced unreasonable reactions.

Vacating the team’s wins under late coach Joe Paterno strikes me as bizarre. If Penn State had won those games unfairly, by bribing players on opposing teams or by juicing its own players with performance drugs, then we could say that Penn did not really win those games. But it did win, and the wrongdoings of the university leadership were irrelevant to the performance of the players on the field. Neither Sandusky’s child molestation nor cover-ups by any university official contributed in any demonstrable way to those victories.

Beyond the absurdity of attempting to re-write history, the sanctions are based on the idea of collective guilt. By punishing the institution, rather than guilty individuals, the NCAA penalizes team members, students, alumni, and fans, none of whom participated in Sandusky’s acts or conspired to protect him from the law. The argument that somehow the “culture” of Penn State was at fault, and that the penalties respond to that culture has no merit. One may as well argue that all of the fans in the United States participate in the lionizing of successful coaches, or that the NCAA itself is a source and supporter of our sports culture, and that fans in general and the NCAA have been complicit in creating an environment that puts protecting the reputation of sports programs ahead of the well-being of children. But cultures do not commit sins of omission or commission. People do. Justice requires that we punish only the guilty for their actions.

Finally, there is the problem of Joe Paterno. The dead are safe from prosecution. Should we somehow prosecute Paterno’s memory? Possibly. But we might remember that even the very best of us can do some very bad things and that when someone has devoted a life to a project, that devotion can create a willful blindness to moral responsibilities that threaten the project.

The Moral Liberal Sociology Editor, Carl L. Bankston III is Professor of Sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans, LA. He is the author and co-author of a number of books and numerous articles published in academic journals. An incomplete list of his books includes: Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (with Min Zhou, 1998), Blue Collar Bayou: Louisiana Cajuns in the New Economy of Ethnicity (with Jacques Henry, 2002), and A Troubled Dream: The Promise and Failure of School Desegregation in Louisiana (2002), Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation (hardback, 2005; paperback, 2007), and Public Education – America’s Civil Religion: A Social History (2009) (all with Stephen J. Caldas). View Professor Carl L. Bankston’s Page here. He blogs at Can These Bones Live?

Copyright © 2012 Carl L. Bankston III.