Poke Or Pluck?

“And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire…” – Mark 9:47, King James Bible

The punishment, on the surface, seems decimating: The loss of 10 scholarships per year over the next four years, with a limit of 65 total scholarship players on the roster, as opposed to the typical 85, for four years beginning with the 2014 season; a $60 million fine; probation for five years; a four-year postseason ban. The NCAA dropped the hammer hard on Penn State University today, sending a strong and concise statement in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal.

And yet…

Establishing a course of punishment involving a criminal matter which was not technically an athletics violation is fairly uncharted waters for the NCAA. In fact, it could be argued that the NCAA had no jurisdiction to levy any type of punishment at all on Penn State, as the university did not seem to violate any of the organization statutes meant to govern collegiate athletics. Even those who did feel the NCAA should become involved, however, argued against the infamous “death penalty,” which would have involved the cancellation of an entire season and possibly more of Nittany Lions football.

The so-called “death penalty” of the NCAA is aimed at doing exactly what its name implies – providing the death knell to a collegiate sports program. While Penn State’s football program will be decimated for years to come, it did escape total annihilation. This seems to be regarded as fair by most pundits who don’t feel future generations of Penn State football players should be unjustly punished for the actions of a few who came before them.

While the recently issued Louis Freeh report on the Sandusky matter at Penn State revealed shocking revelation as to who knew what, when they knew it, and what they didn’t do about it, the impetus of public outrage seems to be focused on the principal players, i.e., Sandusky, Joe Paterno, etc., etc. What I would ask in this moment, though, is this: Does this scenario play out in a culture where college football is merely a sport and not a university-shaping institution?

Think about it for a moment. Would Joe Paterno have had the power to shield a child molester from further investigation by not only university officials but also the law were he not such a revered figure at Penn State University? And why did he hold such power? Because he won football games? Partially. I would say, though, it is because he brought in revenue, and possibly more than that, he brought power and prestige. Somewhere, somehow, college football became a university-building franchise, not only at Penn State, but across the country.

Is it possible to return to a time when football games were simply football games? The Penn State scandal shines a light on the very uncomfortable fact that the sport has eclipsed not only the institution but also laws and morality. To decimate Penn State’s football team for several years is undoubtedly right. But is it enough?

In the book of Mark, Jesus issues a series of stern warnings against sin. Perhaps his most memorable admonition involves plucking out one’s own eye if sins of sight become too great to overcome. Obviously, once a body part is removed, it is gone forever (barring some miracle of modern medicine), good and bad properties removed. The NCAA had the opportunity with Penn State to pluck one of the most offensive members of the body of collegiate sports from its ranks … and it didn’t go the whole way.

What the NCAA did today was more like a poke in the Nittany Lions’ eye. They will be blind for a while, but they will recover their sight at some point. And when that happens, and if they rise to national prominence again, what is to stop the lure of power, money, and prestige from once clouding the judgment of otherwise good men? Worse yet, what is to stop schools possibly involved in illegal dealings right now to stop their activities?

I feel for the athletes at Penn State who had nothing to do with this mess, I really do. Their lives have not ended, however, and other opportunities will come their way. Unfortunately, the same can be said the Penn State football program as a whole. Let’s pray no eye-plucking will be necessary in the future.

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