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Editorial: Penn State deserved death penalty

Penn State head coach Joe Paterno pauses during

Penn State head coach Joe Paterno pauses during a 2008 post-game news conference. Credit: AP

Ultimately, the NCAA settled for a field goal.

Don't misunderstand. In punishing the Penn State University football program for failing to act on credible child-abuse allegations against Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coordinator, college football's governing body meted out some harsh penalties.

These include a $60-million fine, a four-year ban on postseason appearances, and a reduction of 10 scholarships per year for four years, which will make it tough to field a top team. Current Penn State players will be free to transfer to -- and immediately play for -- other schools. In a largely symbolic gesture, the NCAA also nullified the school's 111 victories from 1998 to 2011, which means that the late Joe Paterno, a legend at the school, will no longer hold the record for most victories among major-college football coaches.

But the NCAA stopped short of what should have been its goal line: an outright suspension of Penn State football for a year or more. A suspension is referred to in college sports as the "death penalty," and while it isn't fatal, it's severe -- and was richly deserved in this case.

Consider what happened. Top officials at Penn State harbored a serial sex predator who used campus football facilities to assault young boys. When a graduate assistant saw Sandusky raping a boy in 2001 in a football shower, three top officials -- Paterno, athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz -- were informed but nobody notified off-campus authorities.

Graham Spanier, the university president, then approved a decision to bar Sandusky from bringing kids to campus, but he didn't notify the proper authorities either. The sins of university leaders weren't merely those of omission; a scathing report by former FBI chief Louis Freeh, who was brought in by the trustees to get to the bottom of the whole mess, found that top officials "repeatedly concealed critical facts."

Paterno and Spanier were fired in November. Curley and Schultz resigned and face charges of perjury and failing to report possible child abuse. Sandusky, who started a foster home and adopted six children, was convicted last month of abusing 10 boys over the span of 15 years.

Clearly a warped culture led Penn State to put football above the safety of children. And the moral rot went all the way up the chain of command at an institution whose main mission is supposed to be educating the young. Penn State has taken a number of worthwhile measures to clean house and prevent a repeat of this terrible episode. But it hasn't suspended its football program, a cash cow for the university.

There's precedent for doing so. Florida A&M University, for example, suspended its marching band after a member of the famed troupe died in a hazing incident last November.

The NCAA had a chance to hit Penn State football with just such a suspension, which it last imposed