Joe Nocera’s op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times really strikes the right chord with me, highlighting some of the reasons that the NCAA ought to shut down the Penn State football program.
With that in mind, I want to spend a few minutes on an issue of language that’s been troubling me. Here’s Nocera, though I might have found the same language in any number of other posts on the topic of Penn State football:
In the wake of the Freeh report, there has been a lot of speculation about what punishment the N.C.A.A. should impose on Penn State — and even whether the Sandusky scandal is within its purview. I’m in the camp that says the N.C.A.A. should throw the book at Penn State. The legal system will take care of whether others besides Sandusky deserve to go to prison for failing to report his predatory behavior. Penn State itself will almost surely finish the painful process of removing the halo from the head of its late coach, Joe Paterno, which the Freeh report has begun. But only the N.C.A.A. can impose the so-called death penalty, forcing Penn State to shut down its football program for a period of time. Yes, it would make a mess of television schedules, not to mention the rest of Penn State’s athletic teams — which rely on the revenue that football generates — but it’s the only way to send the right message.
That message is this: no university should ever be as beholden to its football program as Penn State was.
Again, I agree with Nocera’s point. It would be hard to imagine a university culture more toxic than the one at Penn State and it’s hard to believe that changing out a few cogs — albeit very important ones — will instantly fix the whole machine.
My problem, of course, is with the cavalier use of “death penalty” to describe shutting down Penn State’s football program for a few years.
Make no mistake: Penn State’s football program — as well as its athletic department and the university as a whole — would suffer from such a punishment. The impact would be far-ranging, as well it should be. This is, after all, the most serious punishment that the NCAA can hand down.
But it’s not the death penalty.
The death penalty in the United States means taking a healthy human being from a cage and filling his veins full of poison. In its application, the death penalty system is racist, arbitrary, and unfair; it targets those at the margins of society, especially the poor and the mentally ill. With pretty shocking regularity, innocent people find themselves sentenced to die.
If that sounds to you like the punishment the NCAA might hand down to Penn State, I recommend reading the above one more time and thinking about it for just a few minutes longer.
Let’s find another way to talk about the worst punishment available to the NCAA; calling it the death penalty actually makes our criminal justice system seem less awful than it really is.