The NCAA and Lifting of Sanctions

Lion.  Photo by Callen Harty.

Lion. Photo by Callen Harty.

Two years ago the NCAA handed down harsh sanctions against Penn State for its handling of the Jerry Sandusky case. Some fans of Penn State and of college football complained that it was too harsh, that it penalized players for the actions of a disturbed coach and those who protected both him and their football program. The NCAA stood firm, disallowing the school from post-season play for four years and also limiting scholarships. Two days ago they lifted the worst of their sanctions half way through the penalty period.

I have mixed emotions about this. I understand that the current players and coaches had nothing to do with it. Those who did have faced the consequences. Sandusky is in prison for up to sixty years and will likely die there. Head coach Joe Paterno was fired after decades of running one of the most successful football programs in the country and died a short time later. The President, Vice-President, and Athletic Director of the school have all been charged with covering up Sandusky’s sex abuse crimes. They are awaiting trial. So all of the bad guys in this have faced the authorities in some way. Should the remaining bystanders be punished for the sins of others? Maybe the penalties were too harsh in the first place and maybe the NCAA should have just let the justice system take care of the issue.

Along with the sanctions noted above the NCAA also demanded Penn State educate its staff and students about sexual abuse and the school has done very well at that. The NCAA vacated wins. It fined the school. It placed the school on probation for five years. None of those penalties have changed.

Here is where I have a problem. As a survivor what this sudden decision says to me is that the NCAA felt that enough time had passed that it is no longer a big issue. The media is long gone from Happy Valley and the story is no longer of interest to the general public. It says that college football and the money it brings in is far more important than the lost lives of the ten young men who were abused by one man and whose actions were covered up by several other men. It says to other schools that if something similar happens there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth at the outset, but that once the dust has settled and the story is gone from the headlines all will be forgiven and forgotten and life will return to normal.

Life will not return to normal for those ten young men, though, at least not that quickly. They are struggling to heal from their emotional wounds and it is likely that the NCAA lifting sanctions says something to them about how little import their lives have to those whose lives revolve around winning and losing games. Surviving sex abuse is not a game. It can be a lifelong process of recovery. Two years ago the NCAA indicated that they understood that and they supported that recovery by laying down the law and making an example of Penn State. Now that example has lost much of its meaning as Penn State is eligible to play in the post-season again this year and next year will have all of its scholarships back. How would we react if this were the Catholic Church and not Penn State, or an elementary school where the administration allowed abuse to happen without doing anything? We need to think about that and where our priorities lie as a nation–are college football games really that much more important than the loss of innocence that Sandusky’s victims suffered? I sincerely hope not.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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