The "death penalty" would've been more merciful for Penn State's football program. Instead of being hooked up to tubes and machines and continuing to exist with a pitiful quality of life, Penn State would've suffered less if the NCAA simply pulled the plug for a year or two.
But showing mercy and easing suffering isn't part of the NCAA's sentencing guidelines, and certainly wasn't appropriate in this case of unprecedented, institutional anarchy. Suspending the program for former university officials' role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal would've been too easy. Hitting the Nittany Lions with a four-year postseason ban and a four-year reduction on scholarships is more painful and longer lasting.
The NCAA created a spiritual and emotional void at Penn State in gutting the program for the next decade. The school escaped the death penalty but was relegated to a worse fate, the living dead.
It all makes for great debate, fodder to fill hours of broadcast programming and millions of column inches. There are those who say the punishment is too harsh. Critics contend that the sanctions are too lenient. Still others argue that the NCAA overstepped its bounds in venturing from its normal purview.
Anyone who thinks Penn State got off easy either isn't paying attention or wouldn't be satisfied unless the program was shut down forever. A football team operating with 40 fewer scholarships is like a human functioning with 25 percent less blood. There's likely to be a lot of 3-9 and 4-8 records in the future for new coach Bill O'Brien.
"I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead," he said in a statement. "But I am committed for the long term to Penn State and our student athletes."
That might not be long enough. The uniform and logo could remain the same (although some changes would be a great idea), but we won't see "Penn State football" again for a while — if ever. O'Brien's five-year contract will expire early in the recovery process, which has a 50-50 chance of restoring the program to national prominence.
The reduction in scholarships could be felt until 2020 and the next four seasons will be particularly grim. Upper-echelon recruits who might consider Penn State, based on its location, history and tradition will have to forgo thoughts of reaching the Big Ten championship or a bowl game. With no postseason to shoot for, many top prospects will cross off Penn State, especially with Ohio State's Urban Myer and Michigan's Brady Hoke offering better alternatives.
O'Brien will do well to retain a portion of his first two recruiting classes and Joe Paterno's last three. Punishing the program even further, the NCAA ruled that incoming and returning players are free to transfer and immediately compete at their new school. Defections this close to the football season will be nothing compared to the exodus after this season.
Emotionally, the NCAA went for Penn State's jugular, vacating every win from 1998 (when the school ignored a nearly 100-page police report on Sandusky and a boy in the team showers) to 2011. The action cost Paterno 111 victories and knocked him from atop the NCAA's list of most wins in Division I.
One day after his statue came down, the last remnant of Paterno's legacy was toppled as well. If that seems like piling on, it's not enough to get agitated about. History books always denote the games that the NCAA says didn't count.
The best news from Monday's announcement is that $60 million will go from Penn State's coffers to programs that serve the victims of child sexual abuse. As for other aspects of the penalty, the school being on probation and working with an "Academic Integrity Monitor," there's no arguing with that.
Any punishment would inflict collateral damage on innocent parties, from band members and stadium vendors to new coaches and incoming players. The death penalty would've created a wider blast pattern — including scheduled opponents — but the heinous nature of the offense forced the NCAA to consider it.
Instead, they turned Penn State into a zombie. Nicely done.
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