Sending a message

Sanctions announced by the NCAA against Penn State University's football program on Monday are unprecedented not because of their severity — other schools have been hit harder — but because Penn State did not violate any actual NCAA rules. The governing body of major college athletics was delivering a message not just to Penn State but to every college everywhere: Your football program is not the most important thing on your campus.

Colleges in our own state — we're thinking especially of the University of Oregon, whose football program has vaulted to national prominence — should heed that lesson. We're not suggesting that anything approaching the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal is taking place in Eugene or at any other Oregon campus. But the message from the NCAA is clear. Don't let multi-million dollar sports franchises overshadow a university's primary mission.

Because Penn State officials allowed a predatory child molester to continue to victimize young boys in the university's own athletic facility just to protect the reputation of Penn State football, the university will lose 20 scholarships, pay a $60 million fine, be banned from postseason play for four years and see all of its victories wiped from the record books from 1998 to 2011.

Some will argue that the real victims of those sanctions will be the players who signed up to compete for Penn State, who had nothing to do with the Jerry Sandusky scandal or anything connected with it. There is some truth to that, but the players are free to transfer to other schools without losing eligibility. They can even stay at Penn State on scholarship and not play at all if they choose.

Others argue that it is hypocritical of the NCAA, which has profited as much as any from the commercialization of "amateur" college athletics, to punish a university for letting football overshadow its core academic mission. There is truth in that, too.

But maybe, if any good can emerge from something as horrible as what happened at Penn State, it is a change in attitude, a change in focus. A realization that no athletic endeavor is more important than basic human decency, and that even the most successful college football teams must take a back seat to education.

If the NCAA truly embraces that attitude and uses its power to influence its member campuses, that would go a long way toward shifting attitudes that are seriously out of line.

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