There has been much debate about the recent NCAA sanctions against Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky / Penn State scandals. Amy Davidson, writing, for the New Yorker, describes them as fair. Michael Rosenberg, writing for Sports Illustrated, finds them inappropriate. And Dave Zirin calls them "just dead wrong."
Since this is a forum inclined toward deliberation, reflection, and ethics, I want to encourage us to think more deeply about the very idea of sanctions and the role they might play in restorative justice at Penn State.
Here is our problem: For decades, there was a sex offender who abused children on our campus. But it is worse than that. His crimes were able to persist because university leaders were more committed to protecting their individual reputations and their idea of the university than they were committed to protecting his victims.
The crimes include a failure to protect innocent lives, to report crimes, and to exercise moral judgment.
It's messier though. The crimes are not just limited to the acts committed against victims; they depend on hubris, megalomania, corporatism, and a cult of football that was at the center of making these crimes possible. The trouble, in part, is that hubris is not technically a crime, and a cult of football is certainly not limited to Penn State fans. How can these behaviors be addressed in a way that is meaningful, appropriate, and that aids in a process of healing? And how can we correct these acts in a way that does not inadvertently penalize those that are not responsible?
If we reflect on it, it is possible to see the NCAA sanctions as a response to a larger feeling of collective guilt, a need to find a remedy --to use the language of human rights--for a crime against humanity, a crime whose perpetrators are hard to pin down, since they include not just Sandusky, Paterno, Spanier, Curley, and Schultz, but also -arguably-- anyone who didn't challenge the Penn State cult of football, anyone who didn't stop Paterno from coaching another game, anyone who didn't figure out what Sandusky was up to and stop it. If we read it this way, we can understand the national media's bloodlust to bring down Penn State and the NCAA's urge to be first in line, and we can understand the university's willingness to accept any and all punishments. Since to resist punishment would seem to be a return to the hubris that caused the problem to begin with.
But we shouldn't read it this way, and here's why. Such responses are examples of retributive justice--a form of justice that focuses on punishment. This is a justice where an outside body metes out a sentence, one that in this case includes penalties, fines, reduced scholarships, expunged wins, and games that can't be played. The idea is that punishment will deter future crime, will make the criminal "pay," and will right the wrongs. What we are witnessing is a hysterical call for punishment and a frenzied need to tally, calculate, and measure the cost of the crime. If we would only just pay the fines, sit out the games, erase the wins, and tear down the statues, then we would all be redeemed.
While prison sentences, fines, and other sorts of calculations may work to begin the punishment of Sandusky, Paterno, Spanier, Curley, and Schultz, retributive justice simply won't work to address the larger, more slippery crimes that were behind the culture that let those men commit the crimes to begin with. In fact, if anything, they simply perpetuate the very culture they seek to punish. A body wielding great power (here the NCAA) dictates punishments that affect not only the perpetrators, but also those that associated with them. A mass media revels in the humiliation the punishments cause, relishing the idea of players who will never once make it to a bowl game. The sick irony is that such a penalty only increases the hype of the bowl game itself, a hype Sandusky used to facilitate his crimes. The painful reality is that decades of players who took to the field, encouraged by a whole nation of football fans, now can't say they won a single game.
So while the need for justice is tremendous, the sanctions don't fit the crime. The flurry of debates about the NCAA sanctions stems, I believe, from the fact that they don't address the crimes. They use a tally system of punishments when we need debate, dialogue, accountability, and healing. Where we need reform, they impose fines. Where we need to move away from hierarchical leadership, they reinforce it. Where we need to exercise moral judgment, they tell us what to do.
Restorative justice is predicated on the idea that punishment alone will not change behavior, will not heal the victims, and will not build a community committed to a strong sense of ethics. The goal of restorative justice is to heal the victims and to seek reconciliation. At its center is the idea of accountability as assuming responsibility, taking action to repair harm, and exercising moral leadership. Not accountability as penalty. Quite simply, the concept of the sanction is entirely incommensurate with the sort of justice the victims and our community need.
I am sure few of us are surprised that retributive justice was the form chosen by the NCAA to address their outrage for what happened on our campus. And I am sure even fewer are surprised that the media is spinning the story in its typical sound bite, sensation-driven fashion. Heinous crimes were committed and there is no surprise that angry mobs want revenge. Something horrible has been done and there will be hell to pay. It is not hard to imagine Sandusky's body drawn and quartered, Beaver stadium in flames, and Spanier, Schultz, and Curley in pillories in front of Old Main.
But as immediately gratifying as those urges for punishment are, they do not work in the long run. The history of justice teaches us that a retributive system will not build an ethical society. And if you doubt that, you can simply look at the United States' very own penal system as a case in point. When you have the highest prison rate in the world, you must be doing something wrong.
Are the sanctions fair? Sanctions are never about fairness; they are about retaliation. Should there be punishment here? Without question. But punishment alone will not be enough and it will not lead to any meaningful version of justice. If all we do is acquiesce to sanctions, pay out sums, and respond to calls for blood, we will never remedy the lack of moral leadership that got us into this nightmare to begin with.