NCAA punishes Penn State for Sandusky scandal

Penn State gets hit with a $60 million fine and other sanctions for the Sandusky scandal, punishments that will cripple the school's famed football program for years and weaken its brand as a powerhouse collegiate sports brand. But was the NCAA too lenient?

By , Staff writer

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    Penn State University student Laura Lovins, (middle), and fellow students react while watching a live broadcast of the announcement of the NCAA penalties and sanctions on the Penn State campus in State College, Pa.
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The National Collegiate Athletic Association hit Penn State with a $60 million fine and other sanctions Monday, punishing the school for the coverup of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual assaults of young boys and likely crippling its athletic program for years.

The announcement comes exactly one month after a jury convicted Mr. Sandusky of 45 counts related to the sexual molestation of 10 boys over a 15-year period.

The revelations about the assaults, and the efforts that top university officials made to hush them up, exploded into a scandal that stretched far beyond Sandusky and forced the early retirement of Joe Paterno, the university’s beloved football coach who was involved in concealing Sandusky’s abusive behavior from authorities, according to an independent investigative report released earlier this month.

Recommended: In Pictures The life of Joe Paterno

Aside from the fine, equal to about one year in gross football revenues, the sanctions include a four-year ban on bowl games and any post-season play, a reduction in the total number of football scholarships from 85 to 65 and, what is perceived as a psychological blow to Mr. Paterno’s 46-year, 409-win legacy as college football's winningest coach, a forfeiture of all victories between 1998-2011.

The sanctions, while harsh, could have been worse. Penn State escaped what many perceive to be the NCAA’s harshest punishment: the so-called death penalty that involves shutting down the football program altogether for at least one year of play.

During a 45-minute news conference in Indianapolis, NCAA President Mark Emmert stressed repeatedly that his organization’s actions were  intended to restore order in the often disjointed relationship between the values of higher education and the culture of collegiate athletics that often are based on “the values of hero worship or winning at all costs.”

Mr. Emmert said, in debating whether to use the sanction, that the organization assessed the “collateral damage on the innocent” and concluded the penalty would “bring significant, unintended harm to people who had nothing to do with this case.”

“Certainly the lesson here is one of maintaining the appropriate balance of our values. Why do we play sports in the first place? If you find yourself in a position where the athletic culture is taking precedent … bad things can occur,” he said.

Penn State will be on a five-year probationary period that will involve the appointment of an independent monitor and staff, paid for at the university’s expense, that will be tasked with monitoring progress on compliance issues and reporting back to the NCAA and university trustees.

Current or incoming players in the university’s football program can transfer without penalty to competing NCAA-affiliated universities and current players on scholarship can remain enrolled and keep their award if they maintain their academic standing.

The fine is to be directed into an endowment for programs preventing child sexual abuse or assisting victims of abuse.

In a statement released shortly after the announcement, Penn State President Rodney Erickson welcomed the sanctions and a third-party monitor because he said it would ensure they would usher the university into “a new chapter.”

“We must create a culture in which people are not afraid to speak up, management is not compartmentalized, all are expected to demonstrate the highest ethical standards, and the operating philosophy is open, collegial, and collaborative,” he said.

According to the US Department of Education, Penn State’s football program generates more than $50 million annually and subsidizes dozens of other sports programs. Mark Conrad, who teaches sports law at Fordham University in New York City, says the sanctions were ultimately “more severe” than the death penalty because they were more comprehensive.

“If they had just issued the death penalty, you can start from scratch but you haven’t been hit in the pocketbook severely. [Under the sanctions announced Monday], you’re hit in the pocketbook more severely, you lose a lot of wins, and you lose a lot of scholarships,” Mr. Conrad says. “When you throw all that in, you clearly are seeing a program that has to transition down to a different level.”

The death penalty was used five times in the past, primarily for recruiting violations, which pale in comparison with the crimes involved in the Sandusky case. Frank Shorr, director of the Boston University Sports Institute, says the NCAA didn’t go far enough in its sanctions. He believes the early outrage expressed in the rioting at Penn State following Sandusky’s arrest and Paterno’s early retirement suggest the organization needed to trigger the death penalty to ensure the hysteric sports culture at the university is squelched. 

“They should have ceased playing football there for a while,” Mr. Shorr says. “What the NCAA has said is ‘write a check and all is done’. That’s totally meaningless. That has no effect on the people who are sitting in the stands this fall where it’ll be business as usual.”

The sanctions are notable because of their speed, arriving the same month as a devastating report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh. Penn State’s Board of Trustees hired Mr. Freeh to investigate the university’s handing of the Sandusky accusations. His report, based on 450 interviews and about 3 million e-mails, concluded that Paterno and top officials willfully concealed reports of the Sandusky abuse as well as breakdowns in the “university’s culture, governance, administration, compliance policies and procedures for protecting children.”

The NCAA took the unusual step in bypassing its usual policy for investigating possible violations, which can take years. Instead, Emmert said the Freeh report was “vastly more involved and thorough than any investigation” the organization has ever done.

He declined to criticize Paterno directly, saying he wanted to avoid any current criminal investigations and suggested further NCAA penalties against individuals are yet to be determined once those matters are settled.

Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, a former vice president in charge of the campus police, both face charges of perjury and failure to report child abuse. Their trial is expected next year. Both men say they are innocent.

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