Stamatakis: Penn State football – finally, real justice somewhere

By Nick Stamatakis

Talk about collateral damage.

With today’s NCAA verdict, we have finally reached the end of… Talk about collateral damage.

With today’s NCAA verdict, we have finally reached the end of the public phase of retribution for the actions of Jerry Sandusky. While civil lawsuits will haunt many individuals for years, today we see what history will regard as the full public cost of Penn State’s scandal and cover up.

The toll is massive, although admittedly not as huge as it could have been. Future NCAA scholarship allowances have been revoked. The Blue and White is now at least five seasons from a postseason appearance and many more years removed from national dominance. Joe Paterno’s legacy is forever ruined, both in the record books and in the hearts of millions.

The repercussions move well beyond football. As the single largest economic driver in central Pennsylvania, a decline in Penn State football means a decline in the livelihoods of many small-business owners in the region. Behind Jerry Sandusky lies a trail of destruction, touching at first only victims, but now spreading to unrelated students, players and businesses.

Yet talk to people on the street or listen to talk radio, and you may find an attitude of resigned acceptance toward the punishment. Despite the fact that a smaller punishment would spare a lot of people financial, educational and emotional pain, this ruling — for the first time in recent memory — brings with it some sense of cosmic equilibrium.

I say this because no other major organization in 21st-century America has received anything resembling just rebuke for their falls from grace. Penn State is filling a void in our national psyche to see a wrong committed by an organization punished in a manner befitting the crime, beyond simple tracing of faint and purposefully manipulated lines of legal responsibility.

The similar scandal in the Catholic Church, for instance, in which bishops ignored or deliberately quieted accusations of child molestation by priests, has not had a public trial or similar public consequences. In hushed settlements, millions of dollars in reparations are being paid to victims. Perhaps, in the minds of millions of American Catholics, countless personal, private trials have forever lessened the standing of the church. But publicly, there has been no cleansing purge. There is no sense of closure.

Along similar lines, bankers and derivative traders at least partially responsible for the frenzied bubble and crash of 2008 have yet to see anything in the way of real punishment. Here, even private retribution does not exist. Millions of Americans, residing in homes worth half of what they owe, possibly unemployed, have not seen any meaningful public display of remorse, much less payback.

The Catholic Church and Wall Street, of course, both get to hide behind our national desire to avoid collateral damage. To bring a sense of moral equilibrium to these organizations would be too costly, we are told. The Catholic Church would be irreparably harmed financially and reputationally, and a great number of priests and charitable foundations would be unfairly targeted. A true reform of Wall Street, anchored by laws criminalizing bailouts or restricting the size of banks, would leave the American banking sector uncompetitive with the rest of the world and cause unnecessary strain on financial markets.

And yet at Penn State, these concerns have been pushed aside in favor of a deeper and truer justice. A clear message rings across the hills and valleys of central Pennsylvania: If you even think there is a deep wrong, you have a near-sacred responsibility to investigate and stop it. Even reflecting for a moment to consider trade-offs is morally unacceptable.

This is an uncommonly powerful message in a time that values reasonableness over decisiveness. Nobody likes to say they look at issues in simple black-and-white terms. George W. Bush was mocked for looking at problems too lightly and not carefully weighing the pros and cons of a policy. He was, as he himself boasted, not a “textbook player,” but a “gut player.”

Be it in response to the perceived shortcomings of Bush’s style of leadership or as a more pragmatic approach to our current problems in a less confident time, what we see more commonly today — how regulatory organizations addressed the problems both on Wall Street and in the Church — is a more nuanced approach. It is an approach that, admittedly, makes more people happy at the time of the decision.

But the nuanced, stay-calm, no-collateral-damage responses have done little to change behavior on Wall Street, with economists from conservative Russ Roberts of George Mason University to liberal Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University in agreement that soft reforms accomplish little. The approach does nothing to fundamentally address the organizational or incentive structure of the Catholic Church. These organizations know, when all is settled, if anything new comes up, we will all collectively find the route that produces the least amount of pain and moves us forward on the best path. True punitive justice won’t be achieved because, we all know, we don’t want any collateral damage.

I’d be surprised if anybody in college football feels the same way today.

Email Nick at [email protected].