This was Mark Emmert’s moment, the most important news conference of the NCAA president’s career, the one time he could stand on a podium and send a resounding message that his organization mattered in the real world. And he failed.
The NCAA president dropped the ball by not forbidding Penn State to play football for at least a year in the wake of a child sexual abuse scandal, a tragedy that went all the way to the top of the university and its main cash cow, Joe Paterno’s poisoned program.
Emmert took away money and scholarships and all but congratulated himself and the organization for administering what he called “unprecedented” penalties, punitive measures that went far and beyond, he said, the NCAA’s sentencing guidelines. But he let the games go on.
He merely showed us the same thing the late Paterno, former Penn State president Graham Spanier and two functionaries now facing criminal charges for their roles in the cover-up showed us: that no matter how heinous the scandal, college football must go on.
With Monday’s decision not to pull the plug on the Penn State program, Emmert and the NCAA essentially said that grade-fixing and paying players in the 1980s — violations that led to the “death penalty” shutdown of Southern Methodist’s football program for two seasons — was more egregious than former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky molesting pre-pubescent boys in the football building’s showers even after Paterno and others received eyewitness accounts of the behavior.
Never has Emmert and his ineffective bureaucracy looked so afraid of the major colleges who line their coffers and pay their salaries. Never has a $60 million fine seemed driven by public relations.
Yes, that money will go to organizations committed to the restoration of victims of child sexual abuse. But Penn State, the second-highest-grossing program in America, will essentially be able to pay that fine by having a 2012 season.
What Emmert did was not a complete slap on the wrist. Punishing Paterno posthumously, vacating every Penn State victory after Louis Freeh’s independent report concluded the late coach was part of the cover-up, was important. For it let Jay Paterno and every last say-it-isn’t-so-Joe loyalist know that their fallen icon — the coach who passed Eddie Robinson to become the Division I career leader in wins last October — now has fewer wins than Bobby Bowden and Bear Bryant, among others. Joe Pa isn’t No. 1. There. Given what we know now, of course, he never was.
The one tangible penalty was the drastic reduction in scholarships. Eighty-five players used to have their tuition, room and board at Penn State paid for. Now, just 65 kids have full-ride deals. That means Penn State will not be competitive with Ohio State, Michigan or anyone else with tradition and talent in the Big Ten for years to come.
That’s almost as much salt on an open wound in State College as Paterno’s statue being taken down and put in storage somewhere in the stadium. To the zealots who saw Joe Pa and football as their religion, that’s akin to the ark of covenant being pushed into a nondescript warehouse at the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
But Emmert didn’t go far enough. Penn State needed to lose football for at least a year. Saturdays in Happy Valley needed to remain silent for a fall. No Nittany Lion paraphernalia needed to be sold, no steaks and sausage needed to crackle on the grill outside Beaver Stadium.
Look, innocent people who had nothing to do with the scandal were going to be hurt. Every college football community suffers collateral damage when their program goes awry, but none went awry like this one. The paragon of virtue that Penn State and Paterno represented — among all the shady boosters paying Miami kids, all the lying and cover-up associated with Jim Tressel at Ohio State — was a big lie, a ruse that ruined other children’s lives.
After no one went to off-campus police at Penn State when they knew a kid of maybe 10 was raped in the showers, after those same people never even tried to find out what became of that kid, the prism through which we view all evil in college athletics changed forever.
That’s why the facade of Pleasantville needed to go away. Having football Saturdays return to campus in any fashion was giving the university back its most sacred possession, the main commodity that made grown men protect a program before a child.
“There are no actions we can take that will take away their pain and anguish,” Emmert said of the victims, rationalizing later the decision to let football continue at Penn State.
This was his moment. And he and the NCAA, no matter how unprecedented the sanctions appear, failed when they didn’t take away one football season from the university.
His organization stood toothlessly on the sideline while a former FBI director’s law firm did his homework for him, amassing millions of documents and testimony that showed a star chamber of men covered up child sexual abuse at a big-time college football powerhouse.
All the things deemed so consequential in Emmert’s world — appeasing the anti-BCS jihad, expanding the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, making sure every kid accused of getting a free breakfast or his parents’ free airline tickets was investigated to the fullest — now seemed trite compared to what happened in Happy Valley.
In their little world, Emmert and the NCAA were seen as stern. In the real world, they cowered at the idea of taking Penn State off all those 2012 Big Ten schedules. Sadly, they let the season go and and made sure college football remained king.
For Mike Wise’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.
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