Penn State Could Learn from FAMU
Last week, the NCAA imposed sweeping penalties on the Penn State football program. The penalties, which were in response to the heinous findings in the now-infamous Freeh Report, will likely cripple the Nittany Lions for years.
The Freeh Report confirmed everyone’s worst nightmares. High-level officials at Penn State, including former president, Graham Spanier, and venerated head football coach, Joe Paterno, showed a “total disregard for the safety and welfare” of the boys molested by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. The damning nature of the report is summed up by its fundamental conclusion: “the most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.”
The report touched off much debate about whether the NCAA should, or even could, discipline the program. The NCAA answered that question by issuing an unprecedented sanction that includes lost scholarships, bowl game suspensions, vacated wins, and a whopping $60 million fine. But it stopped short of the ultimate sanction, a suspension of regular season play—also known as “the death penalty.” Given the nature of the abhorrent behavior among Penn State officials at the highest levels, the death penalty is the only appropriate penalty. The NCAA opted not to impose it. So Penn State itself should.
This is where Penn State can learn something from FAMU. Around the same time the horrible details surrounding Sandusky’s actions were beginning to surface, Robert Champion, a drum major in FAMU’s renowned Marching 100, was killed during a hazing ritual. Like the Nittany Lions are to Penn State, the Marching 100 is FAMU’s grandest and most beloved symbol. The band is regularly called on to perform at events all over the country. It is so popular that at FAMU football games, it is often a bigger draw than the football team.
But to the disappointment of many, the Marching 100 will not be around next fall. Former president James Ammons gave the Marching 100 the death penalty, through spring 2013. And while hundreds of innocent student-musicians will suffer due to the bad acts of a relative few, the self-imposed suspension was undoubtedly the right decision.
The death penalty is appropriate in cases of utter loss of institutional control. Hazing allegations have dogged the Marching 100 for decades. Days before Champion’s death, the university’s dean of students lobbied for the suspension of the entire band to stem the illegal activities. The recommendation was not accepted. Having the band miss the Florida Classic, the wildly popular season-ending tilt, was simply not an option. The halftime Battle of the Bands against arch-rival Bethune-Cookman University attracts as many fans as the game itself.
The protection of Sandusky in the name of Nittany Lion football and the entire university was an even more egregious and despicable example of loss of institutional control—or, rather, loss of institutional priorities. Penn State should take a cue from FAMU. It banned its band for a year. Nittany Lion football should suffer the same fate.
Aaron Taylor is a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheEdLawProf.