"It is better that one hundred guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer."
In the legal world, the above principle is known as "Blackstone's Formulation" and it is one of the primary elements of English Common Law that was derived when the American judicial system was created.
But the value itself is much older, predating John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Sir John Fortescue and countless others who have hailed it throughout the centuries. It appears in one of the earliest passages of the bible (Genesis 18:23-32), and, for many, is a litmus test on a country's justice system.
Speaking of justice, we've heard a lot about the "justice" that must be meted out against Penn State University, its athletic department, its fans. Justice was served, so to speak, on Monday, when NCAA president Mark Emmert announced unprecedented sanctions against the university's athletic department.
Such sanctions are sure to cripple the University for a decade if not more, and Penn State may never again rise to the ranks of college football's elite.
But was it really justice that was satisfied with Emmert's decision? Or rather, vengeance? Rather than try to make better the situation, or even safeguard against something like it ever happening in the future, Emmert's decision was made with the express purpose of satisfying the angry masses, and scapegoating those who had nothing to do with Sandusky's crimes or the subsequent cover-up.
Crippling PSU won't punish those who participated in the cover-up, they're dead or in jail. Nor will it in any way help the families of the victims. It certainly won't act as a deterrent, or are we really telling ourselves that Spanier, Curley, etc. would've acted differently if they'd known PSU might lose scholarships once they were in jail?
What the sanctions will do, however, is create a lot more innocent victims. Not just Penn State football players, not just fans or low-level administrators. What if the baseball and softball teams need to be cut, now that the cash cow football program can't sustain them?
What of the equipment managers, or assistant coaches of said team, who are suddenly out of a job?
The sad reality is that the sanctions will hurt a great many people who had nothing to do with the scandal, even peripherally. If two wrongs don't make a right, then what good is supposed to come out of these sanctions?
710 Mariners radio host Matt Pitman made a brilliant comparison to me the other day, positing that Penn State is just like one of the banks involved in the financial crisis, specifically Washington Mutual. While almost none of WaMu's employees were involved or even aware of the practices that led to its crash, all suffered.
Because they had lined themselves with that brand, Pitman argued, they had tied their fates to Washington Mutual, just as Penn State athletes and employees had tied theirs to Penn State.
Not guilt by association, exactly, but close. It makes sense.
Vengeance feels good and it's easy, turning the other cheek is hard.
But in a just society protecting the innocent is more important than punishing the wicked, and if Emmert couldn't find a way to discipline Penn State without harming those who never knowingly did anything wrong then he shouldn't have punished them at all.