Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The future of Penn State football

USA Today offered a tantalizing headline today, suggesting "Penn State rethinks role of football program amid scandal".

Unfortunately, the story that follows is quite lean. It offers only two quotes from new Penn State president Rodney Erickson, and only one has anything to do with the apparent evaluation of the football program.

Considering that the university's faculty is concerned that any investigation into what role the university's leaders played in minimizing, covering up or otherwise ignoring the sexual abuse allegations could be a whitewash, the role of the football program is a red-hot issue in State College.

I accept that football is secondary to sexual abuse. But USA Today promised an examination of what could happen to the football program, and it failed to deliver on that promise. 

I've heard a few people over the past month argue (and often incompletely) that the NCAA ought to step in and issue the "death penalty" to the Penn State football program. Their point goes something like this: The university so deeply violated the trust it had with the public that the only possible recourse is to ensure that it cannot play for two or three seasons. The gross negligence in leadership and oversight cannot be solved, the argument goes, by firing the president, the athletic director, the football coach and anyone else deemed to have failed in the leadership role entrusted to him or her.

In other words, regardless of whether it is fair, it is appropriate to punish a group of athletes, hundreds of thousands of alums and college sports fans in general because of a failure of leadership.

There's a huge problem with that argument: Penn State's football team gained no competitive advantage through any leadership vacuum that might have existed. So, let's toss aside the (flawed) argument that the NCAA needs to put the hammer down.

Instead, let's examine what could be done by Penn State to rein in the larger-than-life football program. Please note that I'm not advocating for or against any of these ideas. And please also note that I'm not suggesting this is an all-inclusive list of options.

1. Voluntary and permanently reduce by a significant number the scholarships awarded to football players. In a short time, likely no more than three years, Penn State will move from the upper echelon of the Big 10 to an average to bad team and lose its place in the national spotlight. In the Big 10, Penn State would resemble Minnesota, a team with a rich football history and almost all of it written many years ago.

2. Cut by a substantial amount the athletic department's overall budget. And start with the football program. In the Big 10, Penn State would resemble Northwestern.

3. Leave the Big 10 for a mid-tier conference (the Colonial Athletic Association comes to mind) that likely will be at the FCS (the old 1-AA level). The Nittany Lions would still be affiliated with a conference that places a high value on academics but the football program would be in check.

4. Do what the University of Chicago once did and dump football. 

Left unanswered (deliberately) is what happens to the other intercollegiate sports in which Penn State participates. You can tackle that one as you also examine the ideas I present here.

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