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?