Christians, Mormons, Muslims, and Jews worried about the spread of moral relativism in the United States should be encouraged by the sanctions against Penn State imposed this morning by the NCAA (which include vacating all of Joe Paterno’s victories between 1998 and 2011). Granted, Americans show no consensus on gay marriage or abortion, but with slavery and racism now child molestation also is settled. Actually, instead of being relativistic, Americans are morally rigid about most matters. Even pro-choice advocates are emphatic about the moral good of a woman’s right to choose, as well as the immorality of the pro-life position. The problem in the United States is not a lack of morality. It is that most every issue comes in either black or white. This means that a lack of moral consensus among Americans is to put it mildly, contested.
What is less clear is whether Americans are capable of distinguishing among the depravity of various vices the way, say, the Shorter Catechism talks about some transgressions of the law being more heinous in the sight of God than others. The case of Joe Paterno is proof. The overwhelming condemnation of the recently deceased coach would tempt a visitor from Mars to think that Paterno himself had molested the boys who came through Penn State’s football facility. But covering up a felony is not the same level of offense as committing a felony. Just ask Chuck Colson and Richard Nixon.
The laws of Indiana, the site of NCAA headquarters, may be instructive here (even though they played no role in Mark Emmert’s decision to punish Penn State and the reputation of Joe Paterno. Child molestation is a Class A felony in Indiana and is punishable by a sentence of a minimum of six years in prison (according to a 2000 summary). Perjury, on the other hand, is a Class D felony in Indiana and brings with it up to ten months in prison and a possible fine of $10,000. It is fairly clear that Paterno did not commit child molestation. The worst that he did was to lie before the Grand Jury, a difference between a Class A and Class D felony (it would seem to this legally challenged observer). If his offense was simply not reporting Sandusky, Indiana law classifies this as a Class B misdemeanor, which could bring a fine of $1,000 and a prison sentence of up to 180 days.
But this is all based on Indiana law, the jurisdiction where Mark Emmert and his colleagues work. According to one story from last fall, Pennsylvania has no law requiring persons to report child abuse.
What this suggests is that the NCAA is a lot harder on crime than the states themselves which have law enforcement officers with real guns and facilities with real bars and really sharp barbed wire. That may be a good thing, though I can’t imagine Emmert taking away JoePa’s wins if the coach were still alive. (The courage of the NCAA only goes so far.) But it does confirm my impression, after several viewings of The Wire, that justice mediated the state is more forgiving than justice executed outside the law. For anyone who challenged Avon or Marlo, eliminating the challenger’s existence was the only way to maintain order. But inside the agencies of the police, public school teachers, city administration, or journalism, if you violated procedures or lied to bosses, you got a reassignment, a demotion, or at worst lost your job. But unlike Barksdale’s lieutenants who cheated their boss, if you lied to the city editor of the Sunpapers about your source, you lived to see another day.
After today’s actions, the NCAA appears to exhibit a form of justice much closer to drug dealers than to civil authorities. Unfortunately for Paterno, he is not alive to see a day on his calendar that includes a visit to Emmert’s office in Indianapolis.