Should the NCAA slap Penn State with a one-year "death penalty," barring the university's football team from competition?
That's the question that has been on many lips since former FBI Director Louis Freeh released his report detailing university officials' cover-up of child sexual abuse by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. But it's the wrong question.
The issue isn't what should be done to Penn State; it's what Penn State should do.
And the answer is as clear as Nittany Lion blue: Penn State should forfeit one season of its own accord — before the NCAA or anyone else makes the decision for it.
That's what Florida A&M University did to its famous marching band following the death of drum major Robert Champion last year. Thirteen band members were charged with hazing Champion, whose death was attributed to a severe beating.
After the arrests, FAMU could have tried to dispense with the matter by offering anodyne statements about cooperating with authorities and cleaning house. That's the type of thing we've heard from Penn State officials over and over again since the Sandusky scandal broke.
But that's not what happened in Florida. Instead, FAMU announced that the band would remain suspended for at least a year, possibly longer. As the chairman of the university's board of trustees admitted, the band has a long and ugly history of hazing. "The time to fix the band would not be while the band is on the field," he said.
The long suspension won't be easy. A focus of immense school pride, FAMU's Marching 100 have performed at Super Bowls and presidential inaugurations. Bands are also a big source of revenue at FAMU and other historically black colleges, where halftime musical performances can generate as much attention as the athletes on the field.
That's allegedly why, just three days before Robert Champion died, university officials rejected a request by the dean of students to suspend the band for hazing. According to a lawsuit filed by Champion's parents, officials feared that keeping the band off the field would cut into the school's football-related proceeds.
Last week, following news of the dean's request, FAMU president James Ammons resigned. It was Ammons who suspended the band after Champion died, but he couldn't survive the reports that he had refused to do so earlier.
Other heads are sure to roll at the school, too — just as they will at Penn State. But here's what makes FAMU different: Until its band cleans up its act, it won't take the field. And most students — including the band members — seem to understand why.
"What do we do ... to make sure these things do not happen again?" asked one clarinetist who supported the band's suspension. "This thing didn't start only five years ago. This thing has happened the past 50 years."
The same goes for Penn State. I'm not referring to Sandusky's crimes, which reportedly date to the 1990s. I'm talking about the "excess focus on athletics" and "culture of reverence for the football program," to quote Freeh's report. Those worshipful habits go all the way back to the 1960s, when Joe Paterno took the helm at Penn State — and Jerry Sandusky began serving as his assistant. Football became a cult, a faith, a dogma, a religion. And its high priests called all the shots.
So when a janitor saw Sandusky sexually abusing a boy in the Penn State showers, he stayed quiet out of fear that Paterno might have him fired. "Football runs this university," the janitor told Freeh's investigators.
And so it always will — unless the university's new leadership takes bold action by suspending the team. Anything less will leave the cult of football intact, reinforcing the same twisted priorities that brought on the scandal in the first place.
A football scandal
Just a day before the Freeh report was released, a Penn State football website published a letter that Joe Paterno wrote to his former players back in December, just before he died. It's a typical Penn State apologia, accusing critics of "unfairly besmirching" the football program. "This is not a football scandal," Paterno wrote, "and should not be treated as one."
At least JoePa got one thing right: This is a scandal for the entire university, which placed football above everything else — including the safety of defenseless children. The best way for the school to stand up and admit that sad truth is to sit down the football team, at least for one season. Let's see if Penn State has the guts to do it.