The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

September 26, 2013

Reducing sanctions against Penn State was right call

by Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— The NCAA finally got something right when it reduced the death-like sanctions against Penn State University. Although there was no admission from President Mark Emmert, who meted out the institution-crippling penalties in 2012, a reasonable person should easily recognize that two wrongs don’t make a right and the NCAA had mistakenly donned the cloak of judge, jury and executioner against the Nittany Lions in the investigation process.

Former coach Jerry Sandusky is a horrible person who did unthinkable things to children. Just as bad, people holding the most responsible positions on the State College campus were aware of horrific deeds done by a key university employee and covered up his actions because they feared if made public, they might stain Penn State’s renowned reputation. Yet they did nothing.

As dastardly as they were, as reprehensible as anything to come to light on a college campus, this wasn’t a simple athletic infraction. It was a crime against humanity committed by Sandusky – a violent offense – that belonged in the criminal justice system.  The same for the so-called “Penn State Three” – former school president Graham Spanier, ex-athletic director Tim Curley and former senior vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz – who are now fighting for their futures in court, where they face perjury charges.

Emmert must come from a culture that says there is nothing bigger than sports, a case where our institutions of higher education are merely centers for high-stakes athletic competition that determines and shapes a university’s identification and prestige. Otherwise, why would he try to rule supreme in a matter that was way outside his court of jurisdiction?

The NCAA attacked the investigation in a heavy-handed way. In the end, Penn State was given a choice:  Either accept the most draconian sanctions ever handed down or understand it would be given the “death penalty,” which would have shut down the school’s football program. There would be no “due process” in the case and the damaging investigation in the Freeh Report could not be questioned.

Under duress, the school accepted the findings and sanctions and the athletes on the football team received a public flogging of the worst kind, even though the players weren’t involved in any part of the sordid mess. They were being penalized for a crime no team member committed.

The university, through its leaders, had committed serious sins and in this case was deserving of punishment. Nothing could be done to save Penn State’s from ridicule and shame.  A $60 million fine against the university was staggering, but justifiable given the seriousness of the crime and the lack of proper response by PSU officials.

But penalizing the team with a loss of scholarships and a four-year ban on postseason play seemed like a serious hit on those who couldn’t stand up in court and plead “not guilty” to the horrible deeds. Emmert’s actions were a case of penalizing everyone on the Penn State campus regardless of what they knew or when they knew it.

The NCAA originally had cut the number of yearly football scholarships Penn State could award incoming players from 25 to 15. Beginning with the 2014-15 season, five will be restored. That still leaves Penn State at a major competitive disadvantage.   Also, the postseason ban remains intact. But that too could be reviewed if attempts to improve “athletic integrity” are documented.

No one is trying to minimize the seriousness of the scandal at Penn State. But in this rush to judgment, the whole episode took on the appearance of mob mentality. People were going to pay whether they were part of the conspiracy or not.

In time, matters pending in the criminal justice system will be adjudicated, hopefully, in a fair and honest way. Sandusky has been convicted and will be imprisoned until the day he dies. Former legendary coach Joe Paterno has left this earth, less the last 111 victories of his career. Innocent young boys will forever carry the scars inflicted on them by a madman. Few will ever understand the suffering they have endured.

Regardless of how court dealings and NCAA sanctions play out, one wonders if happiness will ever return to Happy Valley. At Penn State, these remain sad times in a sad place.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.