In the aftermath of the Larry Nassar scandal there will be outcries to impose some sort of punishment on Michigan State as an institution, much as the NCAA penalized Penn State after it was revealed that several people inside the football program, including Joe Paterno, could have taken more aggressive action to prevent Jerry Sandusky from abusing boys. This is a reasonable impulse, but it may be misguided.
In the Penn State case, the school was hit with a four-year bowl ban, a scholarship reduction, and a $60 million fine. Paterno was also stripped of thirteen years’ worth of victories, which resulted in him not being considered the winningest coach in college football history. Most of the scholarships were ultimately restored as Penn State instituted reforms that held those in leadership positions more accountable.
A gymnastics team doesn’t go to (insert corporate sponsor) bowl games or give out scholarships, so if the NCAA decides to punish Michigan State it will likely be a financial penalty. Granted, the gymnastics team doesn’t generate a lot of revenue either, but the NCAA could conclude that the athletic department as a whole is guilty.
But before we decide whether that’s a good idea, we should realize that when Penn State was assessed its fine there were no constraints on where the money would come from. If Penn State had been mandated to reduce its football budget by $60 million over some period of time, that would have been fair. Unlike, say, Wells Fargo, Penn State doesn’t have stockholders that it can decrease dividends to in order to pay a big fine when it misbehaves. An athletic department only has three sources of revenue: donors, ticket sales, and students.
It’s reasonable to assume that a fundraising message featuring Jerry Sandusky in any way would not have gotten a great response, so let’s assume donors weren’t the answer. Donors want something to show for their money, like a building or at least a plaque on a building. It’s the same with tickets. Even with loyal Penn State fans, an increase in ticket prices would probably have resulted in fewer sales, given that the team was looking at some lean years because of the scholarship reductions and the general stink surrounding the program. So that wasn’t the answer.
That leaves students. As a whole, college students have almost zero rights when it comes to the financial arrangements they make with schools. They pay for it by incurring crushing debt that can impact their lives for decades. Schools can raise tuition any time they want, and they can also impose obnoxious little fees at any moment. The only recourse students have is to transfer, which carries its own burdens.
When Virginia Commonwealth was struggling to keep Shaka Smart in the face of offers from bigger programs, they forced every student to fork over fifty bucks so they could upgrade the basketball facilities, even though those facilities were off limits to all but about fifteen of those students. Spoiler alert! Smart left anyway. Maybe Penn State didn’t coerce every student on campus to write a check to cover the cost of that fine, but the students paid for it, either through higher fees or fewer services.
It would be the same with Michigan State, but probably worse. There are not thousands of alumni emotionally attached to the gymnastics team. The justification for punishing an institution is that, even though individual people may lose their jobs or even go to prison because they didn’t do enough to stop Larry Nassar, there was a breakdown at an institutional level that allowed it to go on for so long. Those, in fact, are the exact words that were used with Penn State. You could make a case that the severity of the punishment that Penn State got is what motivated it to reform so quickly and that the same would be true with Michigan State. But the problem with that argument is that an institution is just a bunch of people, and the people with power within that institution will find a way to pass the burden of any penalty onto the people without power.
In this case, that’s the students, none of whom has any guilt in this matter. The people who could have stopped Larry Nassar should be held accountable as severely as possible. But that’s where the punishment should end.