INDIANAPOLIS -- Penn State will play football this season and beyond, but the program might never be the same again.
Although the NCAA spared Penn State the so-called “death penalty” on Monday morning, it handed down a series of sanctions that could cripple the program in the immediate future.
Most serious, perhaps, is a scholarship reduction that eventually will force Penn State to play with just 65 scholarships, 20 below the limit for FBS programs. Penn State also received a four-year postseason ban, which also prohibits the team from participating in the Big Ten championship game. The program had to vacate all wins since 1998, the first year allegations of child sexual abuse surfaced against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky. Former coach Joe Paterno, who had been the all-time leader in Division I coaching victories with 409, drops to 12th place with 308.
The last Penn State quarterback to record an official Nittany Lions win? Mike McQueary on Nov. 22, 1997.
Other penalties include five years’ probation and a $60 million fine, which, according to the NCAA, must be “paid into an endowment for external programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims and may not be used to fund such programs at the university.”
The NCAA says this money cannot be taken away from funding other athletic programs.
“For the next several years now, Penn State can focus on the work of rebuilding its athletic culture,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said, “not worrying about whether or not it’s going to a bowl game.”
The prevailing message Monday from Emmert and Oregon State president Ed Ray, chair of the NCAA’s executive committee, is that the NCAA had every right to act against Penn State.
Moreover, the NCAA had a responsibility to act both swiftly and sternly in a case that Emmert said “strikes at the very heart of what intercollegiate athletics is all about.”
Ray recalled a retreat held by leading presidents and chancellors last year in which they decided, “We’ve had enough. This has to stop.” The Penn State case provided them the opportunity to back it up.
“Does this send a message?” Ray said. “The message is, the presidents and chancellors are in charge.”
So is Emmert, who had an atypical response to an atypical case in fast-tracking penalties, using the recently released Freeh report, which he called more comprehensive than any NCAA investigation could have been, as a road map for evaluating the errors and imposing penalties. He called Penn State’s situation “completely different from other enforcement cases.”
Penn State agreed to the penalties, signing a consent decree, and didn’t try to impose its own penalties before the NCAA could act. Although both Emmert and Ray praised the transparency and cooperation of Penn State president Rodney Erickson and board of trustees chair Karen Peetz, the NCAA didn’t need the green light from Penn State to act as quickly as it did.
“The executive committee has the authority under our constitution and bylaws to take this action,” said Donald Remy, the NCAA’s general counsel and vice president of legal affairs. “It could have and would have been taken without Penn State’s cooperation.”
Some will point to the NCAA’s penalties and say they weren’t enough -- that only death seemed appropriate for Penn State football. Emmert said the death penalty was discussed in detail, but the NCAA brass ultimately decided it would “bring significant unintended harm to many who had nothing to do with his case.”
“The sanctions we have crafted,” Emmert continued, “are more focused and impactful than that blanket penalty.”
He later added: “The great challenge that we spent most of our time on was, how do you craft sanctions that have the intended effect? Clearly, this calls for a punitive action, but it also calls for corrective action, to enable and also ensure that the kind of culture change occurs that is necessary at Penn State University, and, at the same time, has minimal impact on innocent parties.”
Suspending Penn State football would impact many folks who had no direct connection to the Sandusky mess. Still, seeing Penn State play football this fall will make some stomachs turn around the country.
Ultimately, this was an extensive and complex case of misconduct that merited more than one “blanket penalty,” as Emmert put it. Emmert and Ray both said that had the death penalty been imposed, it wouldn’t have been the only punishment for Penn State.
The series of punishments the NCAA handed down could be more hurtful in the long term.
Consider: beginning in the 2014 season, Penn State will have to face Big Ten teams with just 65 scholarship players. FCS teams have 63 scholarships to dole out.
The NCAA also is making it as easy as possible for Penn State players or incoming recruits to transfer. There will be no restrictions on where they go, and they might even land at spots like USC and Ohio State, which have their own scholarship restrictions because of NCAA infractions. Penn State players simply need to tell the school of their intentions to transfer, and then other teams can contact them for recruitment.
The NCAA also is sensitive to the timing of the decision, and will try to accommodate players looking to move in the coming weeks.
“We don’t want to restrict a young man’s choice of schools,” said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA’s vice president of academic and membership affairs. “They obviously find themselves in a very difficult situation. Should they already want to go a program that’s already at 25 [scholarships per year] or at 85 [total], that’s something we would work through with that individual institution. … Our key approach to this is we’re trying not to limit opportunities that students would want to pursue academically and athletically.”
Translation: head coach Bill O’Brien’s job, and those of his assistants, has gotten much, much tougher during the next few years. Although Penn State had little choice but to accept the penalties, O’Brien and his staff would have benefited from the typical drawn-out infractions process, which likely wouldn’t have resulted in a ruling any time soon.
But the NCAA felt it couldn’t and shouldn’t wait any longer.
“There remains a sense of urgency in resolving this case, period,” Emmert said. “It wasn’t driven by the fall semester or the upcoming football season. The timing was simply that, following the work of both the criminal investigators and the Freeh report, the information was there. There was no compelling reason to delay the process.”
Emmert skirted direct questions about Paterno and former Penn State president Graham Spanier, repeatedly pointing to Penn State’s institutional failures. But Paterno was very much a factor in the penalties. The NCAA also confirmed Monday that the Gerald R. Ford Award, given to Paterno in 2011, has been revoked.
Emmert outlined some corrective measures for Penn State -- among them, an athletic integrity contract with both the NCAA and the Big Ten, and having an independent athletic integrity monitor who will file quarterly reports to the NCAA during the next five years. But Monday was all about the sanctions, the proverbial hammer dropping.
There hasn’t been a darker day for Penn State football.
“There’s nothing in this situation that anyone should feel good about,” Emmert said. “This is an awful place to be in. It’s not good for anyone.”