On Monday, the NCAA announced their decision with regards to the Freeh Report, which concluded that Penn State officials had deliberately overlooked sexual abuse allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Among the list of penalties was a curious item – the NCAA would void all of Penn State’s football wins for the years 1998-2011, effectively striking 111 wins from the record.

It’s possible that the victories were voided in part as a posthumous rebuke to former head coach Joe Paterno, who was implicated in the Freeh report. Prior to Monday, Paterno held the record for most wins as coach of an NCAA team. With those wins expunged, former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden assumes that mantle with 377 wins, more than 30 fewer than Paterno’s total. Critics argue that the voided wins do just as much to penalize generations of Penn State players.

Perhaps so. What’s certain is that vacating the wins is a different sort of punishment. It doesn’t hobble Penn State football going forward, the way that the other penalties do. Those setbacks were more pragmatic; the voided wins are a symbol. But football, like any sport, is a highly symbolic endeavor. The other penalties affect Penn State as an institution; the revoked wins affect the culture of college football.

That’s an issue close to the heart of Monday’s announcement. In explaining it, NCAA president Mark Emmert spoke repeatedly about the culture of Penn State football. The decision, he said, was intended to give force to a message meant for the institution:

for the next four or five years, Penn State, don’t worry about going to the Rose Bowl; worry about getting your culture right.

Culture, in that sense, was part of the Committee’s ostensible reason for not dismantling the program at Penn State – a measure many refer to as “the death penalty.” According to the NCAA site,

Imposing the death penalty does not address the cultural, systemic and leadership failures at Penn State. Instead, our approach demands that they become an exemplary NCAA member by eradicating the mindset that led to this tragedy.

…The NCAA sanctions on Penn State, taken in sum, far exceed the severity of shutting down a program for a year or two. Our sanctions address the cultural change necessary at Penn State. What some refer to as the death penalty was not severe enough.

Cast in their best light, the sanctions could be said to send a much simpler message: that college football is not worth the monstrous moral lapses involved in the Sandusky case. Functionally, they do so by undermining the rewards generally associated with a college football program.

To that end, most of the measures are putative, and are structured so as to undermine many of the gains the school and its staff received from Sandusky’s tenure from 1998 – the year of the first report against him – onward. Thus, a $60 million fine will be levied, equivalent to the football program’s earnings over the course of a year. The school will have ten fewer scholarships to offer potential players. The team will be banned from post-season bowl games for the next four years, depriving it of another potential $13 million in revenue.

The vacated wins are something else. After all, Penn State did, in fact, win those games. It is not as though the NCAA found evidence of cheating by the players themselves. It could be argued that, insofar as he contributed to those wins, it was unfair to play with Sandusky as assistant coach, since an earlier investigation would likely have resulted in his removal. Or, from a simpler point of view, the punishment fits since Penn State officials presumably treated the accusations against him lightly precisely in order to sustain his help in winning. From the opposite point of view, it could be argued that the contributions of the players and of staff who knew nothing of the accusations against him outweighed Sandusky’s illicit involvement, and that the NCAA should honor those contributions by letting the record stand.

Having noted those two positions, I’ll have to let them stand on their own merits. It lies beyond my competence to choose between them. I have no ties to Penn State, and do not feel at all aggrieved by the change the NCAA has made to their record. Nor do I think the symbolic gesture likely to do as much good as the more practical penalties leveled by the Committee, despite all of the attention that gesture has received by the press.

What I will say, though, is that the decision to vacate wins does more than change the record for Paterno or Penn State and its players. Subtly but insistently, it changes also the meaning of a win in college football. A win is no longer simply the result of a game, fixed by a score at the end of play. Beyond the team itself there stands an entire hierarchy of administrators, many of whom need never set foot on the field, and yet the legitimacy of a win is now seen to depend on their moral fiber or lack thereof. It is, in short, as much a reflection of what Emmert and company have called the culture of a program as it is of how the members of that program play.

Its mutability on the record shifts the value of a win toward its symbolic meaning. That’s significant because, for astute players, it sends the message that their efforts on the field may ultimately be invalidated for reasons beyond their control. To some of those players, it must seem a dubious prospect to put their effort and abilities in the service of coaches and administrators who might retrospectively invalidate those efforts with actions that stand, for now, outside the public view.

That’s a raw deal for players, and could conceivably weaken the entire NCAA. Even so, it would be a more than fair price to play if it were the best or only way to prevent sexual abuse. If changing the record will actually help prevent more abuses, I’m all for it, but it must be admitted that there are other incentives at work here. Sure, Penn State wanted to win, but it’s hard to believe that they would have silenced their misgivings quite so easily had winning not also meant tens of millions of dollars each year.

What the NCAA announcement did not do is address the indirect role financial incentives played in shaping the culture of the Penn football program. The penalties punish Penn state for the possibility that they let the allure of an annual $60 million undermine their moral character, but discourages other schools from the same moral lapses only by the strength of example. There is no suggestion in all of this that reducing the financial stakes of all college football might help prevent future lapses.

It may be no surprise that the NCAA is reluctant to turn the microscope on its own culture. When they use the term “culture” in their announcement, the Committee seems to mean primarily the administrative structure in each college’s football program. Moreover, by identifying a culture that characteristically belongs to Penn State, their language seals off the toxic atmosphere of Penn State from other programs the Committee oversees. It is all too easy to forget that the Penn State program was formed in the crucible of several broader cultural contexts: nearest is that of the NCAA itself, and more broadly, that of an American culture that fashions heroes out of sports personalities.

The coverage and reception of the Sandusky trial itself reflects that broader culture. It should escape no one that the Sandusky case has drawn even more attention because of the tarnish it casts on the career of college football’s most successful coach. By their inaction in the face of such grave accusations, the Penn State staff decided for their program what it meant to win. In their response to the Freeh report, the NCAA is revising what it means for college football as a whole.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.