The NCAA has spoken. And in an unprecedented set of sanctions, the NCAA’s President Mark Emmert, executive committee and Division I board of directors have punished Pennsylvania State University with far-ranging and crippling penalties.
The school will be fined $60 million over a period of five years—the equivalent of one year’s gross revenue from the football programs. Postseason bowl play, one of the most lucrative aspects of college football, will be banned for four years. Penn State will have to lose 40 scholarships over the next four years, serve a five-year probationary period, allow current and incoming players to transfer to other schools at any time, and (perhaps most devastating for a school with so much pride about its winning record under Coach Joe Paterno) “vacate” all of its wins going back to 1998.
Much of the focus from Monday’s news will be on Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, and the debate over the decision he and his executive committee have made. Was the so-called “death penalty” warranted, in which Penn State would have to end its football program for a period of time? Did the NCAA sanctions go far enough? Or has Emmert overstepped his bounds?
But the leader who will face the most extraordinary challenge as a result of the sanctions is first-year Penn State coach Bill O’Brien. O’Brien was already up against nearly insurmountable odds, stepping into the shoes of a bona fide football legend and one-time saint in Happy Valley. Following Paterno is a job no one would have found easy. On top of that, he was charged with leading players who had already faced emotional turmoil over the past year, watched their team’s name get dragged through the mud and wrestled with questions about which leaders they could trust.
Now, he faces the almost impossible job of coaching a football program that could end up being irrelevant for the coming years. Recruiting will be a nightmare: Imagine trying to talk young players into joining a team that will not get to play in a bowl game or attempt to compete for a national championship for possibly their entire college career. On top of that, he will have significantly fewer scholarships to dole out to attract young and talented players.
Making matters worse, it’s quite possible he will lose many of his current players, too. As a result of the sanctions, current Penn State football athletes can remain on scholarship even if they elect not to play football, while any current or incoming players can also choose to transfer to other schools at any time and be immediately eligible to play. Those sanctions could undermine Penn State’s reputation on the field to the point that “it may potentially never get back to its [current] level,” ESPN analyst Chris Fowler said Monday.
O’Brien, who released a statement Monday saying “I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead,” won’t be able to wait for training camp to begin August 6. Over the next two weeks, he will have to reach out personally to every recruit and every player to try to persuade them why they should remain Nittany Lions. It won’t be about winning championship glory or team fame on the national stage. It will have to be about playing for individual achievement, loyalty to a team that has gone through so much, and the chance to be part of a rebuilding effort unlike any other in college football history. He will have to find a way to carefully tap into players’ frustration, embarrassment and personal responses to the unspeakable events that took place years ago and turn them into a force for good.
No matter what he does, some players, especially stars headed for NFL greatness, are likely to defect. The penalties are just that severe. But when the dust settles, O’Brien may be left with a group of student-athletes who care about teamwork, loyalty to a school, and the highs and lows of playing the game, rather than the system. And that, of course, is exactly what the sanctions hope to deliver: A place where football is a sport, a pastime and a tradition that, in the words of the NCAA’s Emmert, “will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.”
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