Gene J. Puskar/AP
Andrew Hanselman, left, of Bucks County, Pa., and Maddy Pryor, a senior, from Neptune, N.J., react as they listen to Monday's televised announcement of NCAA sanctions against Penn State University football program on campus in State College, Pa.

Penn State sanctions: NCAA aims to end 'mindset' that led to tragedy

Penn State sanctions rival the worse NCAA penalty ever, including a $60 million fine, a four-year ban on bowls, and 40 fewer football scholarships. But sanctions also aim to scale back the outsized role of football on campus.

In explaining NCAA sanctions on Penn State University for allegedly covering up long-running sexual abuse by an assistant football coach, NCAA President Mark Emmert didn’t mince words.

“An argument could be made that the egregious behavior seen in this case was greater than any other seen in NCAA history,” said Mr. Emmert at an Indianapolis press conference Monday.

It was at this press conference that Emmert announced sanctions on Penn State University and its football team that rival any punishment ever meted out by college sports’ chief governing body – including the so-called “death penalty” levied on Southern Methodist University in the mid-1980s.

But how do Penn State’s sanctions compare to those meted out against the Mustangs, who until today were college football’s most infamous “death penalty” case?

In Penn State’s case, the NCAA sanctions can be broken down into two broad categories: punitive and corrective.

On the punitive side are the headline-making figures. A $60 million dollar fine to be paid no less than $12 million per year for an endowment supporting “programs preventing child sexual abuse and/or assisting the victims of child sexual abuse.” The school can’t cut other sports to pay the fine, nor can it use the proceeds of the fund to pay for programs at Penn State.

The football team is banned from post-season bowl competition for four years and sees its annual allotment of scholarships cut from 25 to 15 over that same time frame.

In order to avoid punishing current athletes, all current players are allowed to transfer to new universities and play immediately – typically, transferring players would need to sit out one season. Any current football players can stay at the school and maintain their scholarship whether or not they play football so long as they meet the scholarship’s minimum academic requirements.

These provisions, of course, have the simultaneous effect of emptying out Penn State’s well-stocked coffers of football talent.

And then there is a cut to former head coach Joe Paterno’s legacy: the vacating of all football wins from 1998 to 2011. Mr. Paterno, who, according to a report conducted by the university, played a role in covering up sexual abuse of young boys by his one-time assistant head coach Jerry Sandusky, was the winningest coach of all time when he resigned during the throes of the scandal last year. Expunging those wins from his record drops him into 8th place all time.

Then there are a blizzard of corrective measures aimed at ensuring no future abuses occur. These include the appointment of an independent “athletics integrity monitor” for five years, paid for at university expense. This person will file quarterly reports to the university’s board of trustees, the NCAA and the Big Ten, Penn State’s athletics conference on how the university is implementing its “Athletics Integrity Agreement,” a multistep program outlined here.

To complete the comparison, let’s remember what happened at SMU.
First, a bit of context. SMU was, in 1987, the most penalized school in the history of the NCAA with seven ethics violations since 1958. During the mid-'80s, the school was punished by the NCAA for allowing football boosters to pay players. After initial sanctions were laid down in 1985, further payments came to light in 1987 and paved the way for a version of the death penalty.

It’s a “version” of the death penalty because, for the NCAA, the penalty is not a term of art – it’s something schools must qualify for with sustained malpractice.

Known in NCAA terminology as “the repeat-violator legislation,” it can be applied if two major violations occur within a university’s athletics department in a five-year window. The infractions don’t have to be within the same sport.

When this happens, the NCAA can lower the boom with some combination of the following, according to the NCAA’s page on the subject:

  • The prohibition of some or all outside competition in the sport involved in the latest major violation for one or two sport seasons and the prohibition of all coaching staff members in that sport from involvement (directly or indirectly) in any coaching activities at the institution during that period.
  • The elimination of all initial grants-in-aid and recruiting activities in the sport involved in the latest major violation in question for a two-year period.
  • The requirement that all institutional staff member serving on the NCAA Board of Directors; Leadership, Legislative, Presidents or Management Councils; Executive Committee or other Association governance bodies resign their positions. All institutional representatives shall be ineligible to serve on any NCAA committee for a period of four years.
  • The requirement that the institution relinquish its NCAA voting privileges for a four-year period.

In SMU’s case, football was the sole malefactor. Their 1987 football season was cancelled by NCAA fiat, and the 1988 season was also later called off because the team could not safely field a squad after existing players transferred or left the team. A ban on bowl games and live television was extended through 1989, and the team’s head coach and five assistant coaches (cut down from a usual nine aides) saw their recruiting abilities severely curtailed until the start of the 1988 school year. While all existing players were allowed to transfer and play at their new schools immediately just as in the Penn State case, the university lost more scholarships (at 55) over the next 4 years.

These sanctions all but killed what was then not only a mighty football power but the scandal-plagued Southwestern Conference, which dissolved shortly thereafter. SMU did not win a bowl game until 2009.

That bodes ill for Penn State’s football prospects, even though the Nittany Lions far outshone SMU, even at the Mustang’s zenith.

And that’s because, in the NCAA’s view, what happened at Penn State necessitated an even graver response than the death penalty.

“Imposing the death penalty does not address the cultural, systemic, and leadership failures at Penn State. Instead, our approach demands that they become an exemplary NCAA member by eradicating the mindset that led to this tragedy,” the NCAA says on a page devoted to the Penn State sanctions.

The main difference between the two sets of penalties, then, is in terms of the “corrective” levies required by the NCAA on Monday. Penn State’s sanctions do not only extract their pound of flesh from the athletic program – they take aim at the concept of the football program within the university.

In fact, the Penn State case revealed an awareness by Emmert and the NCAA about a problem with the role of sports on college campuses in general.

“One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports,” he said, “can be the sports can become too big to fail – indeed, too big to challenge.”

And that culture is something the death penalty simply can’t fix. 

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