Shutting down Penn State football altogether would not have been the answer, any more than mothballing that Joe Paterno statue can assure the kind of butterfly effect so desperately needed in the big-time college athletics' over-the-top culture.
College football is no less a religion today in such locales as Tuscaloosa, Ala., Baton Rouge, La., and Columbus, Ohio, than it was before the NCAA fined Penn State $60 million, instituted a four-year ban on postseason participation and took away 40 scholarships (with a limit of 65 scholarships on the roster) and 14 years of victories.
Those grave NCAA sanctions, for Penn State's loss of institutional control over King Football, are appropriate. They diminish the sport's surpassing power in the bigger picture of confronting former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky's ghastly crimes.
But the major business of what the NCAA insists on calling an "amateur" sport meanwhile is stampeding ahead. The approval of a new playoff system reportedly could generate as much as $5 billion dollars over 10 years, conferring yet more importance on football operations where higher learning is the theoretical goal.
That can only mean a greater fealty bestowed on coaches and "programs" -- as opposed to "teams" -- that win. Not only is there a statue of head coach Nick Saban at the University of Alabama, but a recent New York Times analysis by two University of Kansas professors found that Saban receives $4.68 million in total compensation annually from the school -- not counting performance and academic bonuses such as the $200,000 he received just for appearing in January's national title game.
That should further concern NCAA president Mark Emmert, whoacknowledged months before news of the Sandusky scandal broke that American colleges "somehow have wound up creating athletics, in the mind of the public, as a proxy for academic status, which is an odd thing."
As a young man, Emmert said, his own father questioned why he would take a faculty position at a school the father hadn't heard of, because "to him," Emmert said, "if it was a great school, why don't they play football? Or, at least, better football."
Possibly, thoughtful people now are asking of Penn State, "If it's such a great school, why did it feel the need to let football prove the point?" And now, with a devaluated football operation, might the public mind assume a declining institution?
The reality is that, while the NCAA penalties are harsh, Penn State likely has more wherewithal for recovery than Southern Methodist University had when it was hit with a one-year suspension of football in 1987 (SMU canceled its 1988 season as well). Penn State has a far larger, much more passionate fan base and regularly fills the second-largest college stadium in the nation with as many as 107,000 spectators; it already has sold 80,000 season tickets for 2012.
The $60 million fine, while no small change, is to be paid over a five-year period and amounts to what roughly has been a single year's worth of Penn State football revenues. According to SportsOneSource, a sports business provider, Penn State continues to do well with apparel sales -- $60 million worth since the Sandusky revelations.
Even the NCAA's reduction to 65 scholarship players ought to be plenty adequate for the school to field a competitive team, given that NFL teams operate nicely with in-season 53-man rosters. To a great extent, Penn State's football team has been gutted only in the context of how ridiculously bloated elite college programs have become.
Just last week, in an unrelated move, the NCAA voted to limit the number of strength and conditioning coaches per school to five, from as many as 12 on some teams, a small step in controlling costs and personnel that sounds terribly inadequate -- once again giving the sense that the NCAA might as well be doing magic tricks on radio.
Emmert has called the Penn State shame "a gut check: Do we have the right balance in our culture?" The answer is "no."
But the best thing to do now is root for Penn State's dismantled team to do really well, in the probably naive hope it may somehow encourage a success-with-less imitation.