As severe as they may be, the penalties that the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. imposed on Penn State University's football program Monday aren't likely to have as profound an impact on the school as the scandal that caused revered coach Joe Paterno to be ousted in disgrace last year. The larger purpose of the sanctions — including a four-year ban on bowl games, 40 fewer scholarships, 111 wins revoked and a $60-million fine — is to tell universities across the country that there's a considerable price to pay for letting their mission become subservient to their athletics programs. Yet the NCAA may not be the right organization to deliver that message, and the broader problem epitomized by the Penn State scandal can't be solved by imposing temporary punishments on a single institution.
The Penn State situation was unique in many ways, or at least we hope it was. In contrast to the typical NCAA target, there were no alleged improprieties in recruiting, under-the-table payments by boosters or bogus term papers. In fact, Paterno's program was often cited as the "right way" to conduct college athletics. But as a university-sponsored investigation by former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh revealed, Paterno and other top university officials covered up accusations that longtime assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was molesting young boys, allowing Sandusky's predation to continue — on campus, no less — for more than a decade after they were first alerted.