The NCAA penalties against Penn State University have been criticized as unfair by some, especially Nittany Lions loyalists who contend the sanctions hurt people completely unconnected to a child sexual abuse scandal and its cover-up.
The fines and restrictions are indeed harsh. Student-athletes who chose Penn State to compete at college football’s highest level will not be able to play in a bowl game; the NCAA banned the team from playing in any bowl for the next four seasons. Funding other Penn State sports will become more difficult for the university; the NCAA fined the school $60 million, the equivalent of one year’s football revenue. Former Nittany Lions football players will see some of their greatest moments erased, at least statistically; the NCAA vacated 112 of Penn State’s victories amassed from 1998 to 2011 — the era during which former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky raped and abused young boys, while university officials turned a blind eye to spare the program’s prestigious image, according to an eight-month investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh.
Punishment will be felt beyond Sandusky, convicted last month, and his superiors who — according to Freeh — chose not to report Sandusky to law enforcement authorities in order to protect the reputation of the football program built by legendary coach Joe Paterno. The spillover of those penalties is unfortunate, but the NCAA crackdown is necessary.
To change a culture of “hero worship and winning at all costs,” the NCAA had to make Penn State pay a high price.
That price will be high. Penn State football will not rise to its past state of glory for quite some time. In addition to its four-year bowl ban, $60 million fine, and vacated victories, the university also was stripped of 20 scholarships per year from 2014 to 2018, and limited incoming recruiting classes to 15 scholarships (rather than 25) for the next four years. The NCAA also prohibited Penn State from cutting its other sports programs in response to the fines. And, the Big Ten Conference (which added Penn State as a member in 1990 in a mutually beneficial business transaction) announced Monday that PSU would forfeit its cut of the league’s bowl revenue sharing, about $13 million, a sum that would then be donated to child protective charities.
The NCAA stopped short of its ultimate sentence, the “death penalty,” which would have shut down the program indefinitely.
Though the horrible inaction of Penn State brass, including Paterno and the top university officials, warranted such a dramatic punishment, the penalties inflicted by the NCAA may produce the intended results. “Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert.
Penn State may actually learn that lesson, though some in Happy Valley — the ironic nickname of the secluded location of that campus — remain in denial of the scandal’s broader implications. It is questionable, though, that other big-time football and men’s basketball powerhouses will change the culture on their campuses. Can NCAA officials say, with a straight face, that football or hoops is not, in actuality, the unstated top priority at many of its most elite member schools? The football or men’s basketball coaches out-earn the university president at many schools. In fact, nearly 40 assistant coaches at Football Bowl Subdivision schools (the NCAA’s top level) are paid at least $400,000 a year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That figure illuminates skewed priorities in major-college athletics.
Starting this fall, Penn State will have to operate its football and other athletic programs in ways more familiar at NCAA colleges that scramble to make ends meet. Those schools either lack the means or the desire to base their institution on a foundation of a football or basketball program. Perhaps the Penn State sanctions will deter other universities from sacrificing their moral compasses for wins, ticket sales and inflated legends.