Under legendary coach Joe Paterno, Penn State football became one of the most recognizable and successful brand names in college athletics. But on Monday, the NCAA levied unprecedented sanctions against the program for its role in the sexual abuse scandal involving former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, erasing part of the team’s illustrious history and making its prospects in the near future increasingly dim.
The NCAA fined the school $60 million, imposed a four-year postseason ban on Penn State football, significantly reduced the number of scholarship players the team can field over the next four years, placed the program on probation for five years and enabled any current or incoming player to transfer and play immediately without restriction.
But perhaps the most significant individual sanction in the context of college football history is that all of Penn State’s wins from 1998 to 2011 have been vacated, which means that Paterno, who oversaw the Nittany Lions’ football program for nearly 46 years, no longer is the all-time winningest coach in college football’s Division I. That distinction now returns to the late Eddie Robinson, who recorded 408 career wins in 45 years as the head coach of Grambling State — a number surpassed by Paterno on Oct. 29, his last game as Penn State coach before he was forced to step down.
The punishment was not the so-called “death penalty,” a drastic measure banning a rule-breaking program from competition that has been imposed only once in the modern era — in 1987, the NCAA prohibited Southern Methodist from fielding a football team for one season (and the school added a second year). But the impact on Penn State football is likely to be similarly devastating.
The $60 million fine dwarfs any levied by the NCAA in the past; the four-year bowl ban will cost the school tens of millions of dollars; and the reduction to 15 from 25 annual new scholarships, while not unprecedented in scale, will significantly handicap recruitment efforts, especially given the other negative fallout from the Sandusky scandal.
Opposing football programs looking to take in Penn State castoffs may receive an unanticipated gift: The NCAA is considering whether to allow them to do so without counting the former Nittany Lions players against their allotment of 85 scholarship players.
At many Division I athletic departments, football ranks supreme and, in some cases, the school’s hierarchy is adjusted to reflect as much.
That, NCAA President Mark Emmert concluded, was what took place at Penn State during the years in which Sandusky was found to be abusing young boys, and that was exactly the sort of environment he hopes these sanctions will deter.
While examining the case, Emmert said Monday, the NCAA “kept foremost in our thoughts the tragic damage that has been done to the victims and their families. No matter what we do here today, there is no action we can take that will remove their pain and anguish.
“But what we can do is impose sanctions that both reflect the magnitude of these terrible acts and that also ensure that Penn State will rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry. Our goal is not to just be punitive, but to make sure the university establishes an athletic culture and daily mind-set in which football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.”
Earlier this month, former FBI director Louis J. Freeh released a report that found Paterno, in concert with three other top Penn State officials, had covered up allegations of child sexual abuse made against Sandusky, a former assistant coach on the football team, for 14 years.
Paterno, who coached Penn State for nearly 46 years, was fired in November and died in January at age 85.
Last month, Sandusky was found guilty on 45 counts related to sexual abuse of 10 boys over a 15-year period. He has yet to be sentenced, though the charges carry a minimum 60-year sentence and 442 years at maximum.
Emmert said the Freeh report, which was commissioned by Penn State, “was vastly more involved and thorough than any investigation we’ve ever conducted.”
Typically, the NCAA goes through a process that can span more than a year when it has reason to believe violations of its rules have been committed. That process includes an NCAA investigation, the issuance of a notice of allegations, time for the accused school to respond, a Committee on Infractions hearing and time for the committee to draw its findings. None of that took place in the case of Penn State, and the school is not believed to have committed any violations of NCAA regulations.
Using immoral or criminal behavior as a means to justify sanctions constitutes new territory for the NCAA.
“It’s important to separate this from a traditional enforcement case. That’s not what this was,” Emmert said. “This was an action by the [NCAA] Executive Committee, exercising their authority and working with me to correct what was seen as a horrifically egregious situation in collegiate athletics.”
Penn State has signed a consent decree and will not appeal the sanctions. In an interview with the Centre Daily Times, Penn State President Rodney Erickson said it agreed to the sanctions in order to avoid an NCAA death penalty.
In regards to the $60 million fine — the equivalent of one year of gross revenue for the Penn State football program — the NCAA gave the school five years to complete the payment and stipulated that the money cannot come from other Penn State sports programs or from academics. The NCAA plans to put the money into an endowment that will aid victims of child sexual abuse.
Erickson said in a written statement that the money to pay the fine would not come from tax money, tuition dollars or donations.
“Penn State accepts the penalties and corrective actions announced today by the NCAA,” Erickson said in the statement. “With today’s announcement and the action it requires of us, the University takes a significant step forward.”
In a written statement, Penn State football Coach Bill O’Brien, Paterno’s replacement, described the punishment as “a very harsh penalty” but said he remained committed to the team.
“I will do everything in my power to not only comply, but help guide the University forward to become a national leader in ethics, compliance and operational excellence,” said O’Brien, who met with his players Monday, according to reports. “I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead. But I am committed for the long term to Penn State and our student athletes.”
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