There was a time when many people could be outraged to learn that a university would arrange under-the-table payments to its football players. That behavior surfaced at Southern Methodist University in 1986, and the NCAA responded with harsh sanctions against the school, a chronic offender: The NCAA banned SMU from playing football for an entire season and canceled its home games the following year — what became known as the “death penalty.”

A slush fund for athletes? What a blessed relief if something of that nature had been the worst thing to happen at Penn State University under head coach Joe Paterno. No children were raped at SMU.

The same cannot be said of Penn State, whose top officers showed a “total and consistent disregard” for the interests of children molested by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. After being presented with evidence of crimes by Sandusky, an outside investigation found, university officials cravenly deferred to the demands of Paterno in electing not to inform the police. That failure allowed Sandusky to go on heartlessly victimizing kids for years.

Sandusky, convicted of sexually assaulting 10 boys, will probably spend the rest of his life in prison. Two university officials have been indicted for their alleged roles in the cover-up. They may not be the last ones to face charges.

But the NCAA shouldn’t leave matters to the criminal justice system. It should take action on its own — and the most useful action it can take is to tell Penn State it will not be fielding a varsity football team this season or next.

The problem in Happy Valley, the nickname for State College, Pa., and its surroundings, is not just that one coach committed crimes and his boss protected him.

Among the malignant forces cited by former FBI Director Louis Freeh in his report on the scandal were the university’s “excessive focus on athletics” and a “culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.” The result was an intense desire to “avoid the consequences of bad publicity.”

At Penn State, the welfare of innocent kids who were being serially assaulted could not possibly compete with that overriding priority.

It may be that none of this atrocious misconduct actually violated NCAA rules, which don’t directly discuss this sort of gruesome criminality. But the organization has broad authority to discipline schools for exhibiting a “lack of institutional control” of their athletic programs.

Here, a coach molested children on campus, aided by a head coach’s evident indifference, and the school’s top officials chose to hide the crimes. If that’s not lack of institutional control, what is?

At Penn State, it’s clear, President Graham Spanier knew very well that in the campus hierarchy, he ranked below Paterno. If there is one sure way to diminish the importance of football in State College, it’s to close it down. That sanction would impress on coaches, administrators, students and alumni that the sport’s role has grossly warped the values that should govern an institution of higher learning.

It also would give everyone connected to the school a chance to address how to repair the grave harm done to the institutional reputation that its officials sought to shelter:

Right now, the public doesn’t associate Penn State with academic excellence or even gridiron prowess. It associates Penn State with a naked coach raping a boy in the locker room showers.

The value of this death penalty would not be limited to Penn State: It would forcefully remind every school that athletics, no matter how successful or profitable, must be subordinate to the higher mission of education.

Yes, the death penalty would cost other schools game and broadcast revenues. Yes, it would disrupt TV schedules. Yes, it would encourage players to transfer.

Is it worth all that to deter coaches and university officers from excusing heinous crimes in their midst, and to deter predators from committing such crimes in the future?

It’s a question that shouldn’t need to be asked.

Editorial by the Chicago Tribune distributed by MCT Information Services

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