NCAA’s Penn State sanctions show surprising muscle

If this is the new, muscular NCAA, let me be the first to say I like it. And I hope this won’t be the last time we see the organization many — including me — had all but given up on for having barely a bark and a nearly toothless bite flex its collective biceps and deliver a knockout blow.

That’s certainly what happened to Penn State on Monday when the NCAA meted out sanctions that arguably have as much bite as what many feared: the death penalty.

Penn State — for allowing its football program to run roughshod over its common sense, the law and finally basic human decency — will lose 20 scholarships and be banned from postseason play for four years. It will be fined $60 million, which will be used to establish an endowment to help the victims of child sexual abuse around the country (not just the victims of Jerry Sandusky, who are still free to sue the school). It set up an ethical oversight board and reserved the right to further punish anyone involved with the program once the dust settles from the current charges.

And perhaps most surprising, it vacated all of the Nittany Lions’ victories from 1998 to 2011. If the school hadn’t removed Joe Paterno’s statue Sunday, it might have fallen over from shock.

The sanctions are tough, but what is really striking is that they were handed down by NCAA President Mark Emmert without a prior hearing by the Committee on Infractions — because Penn State hasn’t broken NCAA rules.

I’m as critical as anyone of the NCAA — I was convinced they wouldn’t take decisive action, and I was wrong — but it’s hard to fault them for not having anticipated the need for rules such as: “A coach shall not use his position to lure children to the school and assault them” or “A coach shall not use his power to cover up the sexual abuse of children by anyone in his employ.”

That kind of thing usually falls under “common sense” for most of us — but apparently not for all. So Emmert took the unprecedented step of wielding what some might call autocratic authority. There’s a kind of poetic justice in that.

Now comes the time to hear that the sanctions aren’t fair to the current players. Of course they aren’t. Sanctions seldom punish the people who caused the fracas. Ohio State got slapped, but Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor weren’t around to feel the sting. This is not the last time life will be unfair to these kids, sadly. But they can transfer to other schools and play immediately, or stay at Penn State and play, or stay at Penn State on full scholarship and elect not to play. In other words, they have choices, something Sandusky’s victims quite palpably did not have.

The community will also suffer. But the deification of the Penn State football program was not limited to campus. The results were far-reaching. The birth mother of Sandusky’s adopted son Matt was one of the people who sensed something was wrong with Sandusky. But she wasn’t an important member of the community, not compared to an assistant coach at Penn State. He was automatically believed and trusted because he wore a whistle around his neck. How sad is that?

Even the staunchest Penn State alumni have been rocked by trial testimony and by the revelations of the 162-page Freeh report released July 12. In it are e-mails that make plain that university officials were aware of Sandusky’s actions and looked the other way. And that includes Paterno. Penn State’s Board of Trustees hired former FBI director Louis Freeh to compile the report, and the school announced it accepted the findings. But the school failed to do anything to punish, curtail or in any way diminish the football program, despite the fact that the football program and the reverence with which it was treated created an icon so powerful that a statue was erected to him long before his death in January.

That program eventually was seen as untouchable, so much so that when Sandusky’s horrible actions were made known to people at the highest levels of the university, instead of taking action, they consulted Paterno.

Why? In what way should Paterno have had any say in what was a criminal matter? Paterno, too, did nothing. Former athletic director Tim Curley and retired vice president Gary Schultz have been charged with perjury for lying to the grand jury investigating charges against Sandusky. Former president Graham Spanier has not been charged with anything, for whatever reason.

Paterno defenders will haul out the tired argument that he is not as much to blame as others in the case. The problem is this: There is no scale to measure such blame. He knew. He did nothing. Oh, I’m sorry, he told Sandusky not to shower with young boys any more. The attempt to make Paterno a victim in this dreadful scandal is becoming tiresome. He is not a victim. The victims were the children. Period. End of story. That clearly was the NCAA’s thought in vacating all those victories.

The statue was the 900-pound elephant in the room, and it wasn’t helped by the fact that behind it were inscriptions that called Paterno a “humanitarian” — eerily echoing the idea expressed in the Freeh report that Sandusky needed to be treated humanely even after it was known that he was a pedophile — and a quote from Paterno that in part said “I hope they write I made Penn State a better place . . .” How could the school leave the statue in place with those words behind it?

But the statue is a red herring on this day. The issue is the NCAA’s newfound muscle, and the mark it has left on Penn State — and truthfully, there will never be another situation like this, so perhaps there will never be a need again for this much muscle. But if the NCAA would handle all violations with strong sanctions, tough language and an understanding that the public at large is losing faith in a sport with a lot of warts, then maybe it can be redeemed along with Penn State. I hope so, in both cases.

For previous columns by Tracee Hamilton, visit washingtonpost.com/hamilton.

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