The ESPN telecast showed student reaction (photo) on a split screen as NCAA President Mark Emmert ticked off one harsh penalty after another against Penn State’s football team. Clearly these horrified Penn State students were being punished for the sins of the formerly sainted coach, the university president, and other senior members of the administration. Their future autumn Saturdays, their social lives, and their pride in their university were being stripped from them.
Accountability for wrongdoing often brings down the innocent along with the guilty. Think about the workers at Enron, Arthur Anderson, or MCI-Worldcom, who lost their jobs when their bosses’ malfeasance destroyed their companies. Or think about innocent children of illegal immigrants who are wrenched away from their world when their parents are deported.
Is it all right to punish the innocent? First, there is no way of punishing the guilty without harming people close to, or dependent on them. Even a mass murderer–when he is sent away his mother suffers along with him. When Al Qaeda militants are killed, their family members often die with them.
Still we mustn’t be blasé about collateral damage to innocents. It was painful to watch the students as their innocent college years were stripped of top-quality football. But in a sense they’re not innocent. They share a nation-wide belief that football is more than a game—that it defines in part—in large part—the university.
That’s the belief that led the university to shield a serial child-rapist for ten years: exposing him would hurt Penn State football. And so they shielded Sandusky from the law.
What’s being taken away from the Penn State students is an illusion—the illusion that the quality of their college years depends on football championships. College years are a time for shedding childish illusions. Perhaps the innocent students aren’t being punished at all: they’re learning what’s important in the world. That’s a big part of what they are going to college for.