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The NCAA Sanctions Penn State

By Jordan Walsh

It is undoubtedly true that the full impact of the sanctions levied upon Penn State University by the NCAA in the wake of the Freeh Report and Sandusky verdict will not be understood for years to come. Yet a few things are certain. One of these is that the forfeiture of the program's 112 wins between the years 1998-2011 and the removal of Joe Paterno from the record books as the NCAA's winningest football coach in Division 1-A football is more severe than the so-called "death penalty" alone would have been. If, as NCAA President Mark Emmert stated "[t]he sanctions needed to reflect our goals of providing cultural change," the removal of the football wins from the record books is quite possibly the most appropriately tailored portion of a punishment, which also includes a 4-year postseason ban -- championship games and Bowl games --and a scholarship reduction of 10 scholarships per year for 4 years for the football team, a five-year probation for all Penn State sports, the hiring of an academic monitor by the NCAA, and a $60 million fine.

Leading up to today's press conference, much had been made of the so-called NCAA "death penalty," or the elimination of the football program for a set number of years -- considered to be the ultimate punishment. Taken together, though, the NCAA's sanctions will hurt more than a so-called "death penalty." The sanctions have in fact, ended Penn State's football program as we knew it, as the forthcoming cover of Sports Illustrated has so aptly depicted it.

A one-year ban on play would have been less effective in changing the culture of Penn State. As little as a mere 365 days later, it would have been business as usual in Happy Valley. New recruits could simply choose to red-shirt one season and play for a national title the very next year. The NCAA protected the local economy, which needs football game weekends, and the student athletes affected, who were given a choice -- to stay at PSU and keep their scholarships whether they play or not as long as they maintain their grades, or transfer to another school. Perhaps most importantly, the NCAA has waived the one year of lost eligibility usually required of transfers, allowing them to play immediately.

A choice is something that Sandusky's child victims certainly never had, and it is important --particularly for the native Pennsylvanians on the roster -- that the NCAA recognized in some fashion that these kids (ages 17-21 or so) currently at PSU deserved one. Now these athletes have a choice, and further, Penn State football must deal with an entire roster of what are essentially immediate free agents.

True, a "death penalty" would mean lost revenue -- television and otherwise -- for Penn State for that year or years, but the NCAA at least symbolically addressed this concern by making the fine amount of $60 million equivalent to one year's gross revenue for the football program. The $60 million(to be paid over 5 years) is to be used to start an endowment to help child abuse victims nationwide. There is some degree of poetic justice in the Penn State football team literally playing for the survivors for a year. Further, the loss of post-season eligibility and the overall tarnish on the brand will cost Penn State plenty in revenue for far longer than even the 4 year post-season ban. The only people buying Penn State memorabilia now will be the diehards. Further, the Big 10 conference has barred Penn State from its Bowl revenue sharing program, and will also be donating PSU's share to child abuse advocacy organizations for 4 years.

As for long-term effects, there is no single greater punishment than the forfeiture of the football wins from 1998-2011 inclusive. Pennsylvania bleeds blue and white as a state, and the NCAA has erased part of its history. There is no greater institution for most Pennsylvanians than Penn State, and during the time period in question most Penn State fans cared about nothing more than "Joe Pa" passing Bobby Bowden of Florida State for winningest Div. 1-A football coach (or subsequently Eddie Robinson of Grambling, in 2011, for winningest football coach ever). The battle for winningest coach was most certainly on the radar of Penn State in 1998 -- it was part of the national discourse. Penn State and Florida State had winning seasons and played in bowl games in 1998 -- it would have been very inconvenient for Coach Paterno and the program to turn in Sandusky in 1998. Instead, Sandusky retired.

Before the 1998 season, Paterno had (and now in fact has again) 298 wins. He won 111 games between 1998-2011, although there were several lean losing seasons between 2000-2004 where the main argument for Joe Paterno keeping his job was to pass Bobby Bowden in the record books. Many commentators openly pondered if Paterno was too old, and whether he had lost the ability to motivate his team to compete at a championship level. Had Penn State reported Sandusky to the police during any of these losing years, it likely would have tipped the tide in favor of Paterno needing to retire then as well. A major child abuse scandal going on under the longtime coach's nose while the team languished in the Big 10 cellar would have been the last straw. Bobby Bowden's team was winning regularly during these years, and Bowden took back the overall wins lead for a time. The flip-flopping of the coaches for most wins overall was fodder for major national media coverage throughout the early 2000s. Paterno did not finally pass Bobby Bowden for overall wins for the last time until 2008, at 383 wins. (Bowden himself then forfeited 6 wins due to an ineligible player on the field. Bowden retired with 377 wins in 2009 -- he earned approximately 108 of those wins in the years between 1998 and his retirement in 2009.) Thus, it is not a stretch to say that without the cover-up of Sandusky's abuse by Paterno and PSU administrators in the years of 1998-2011, he never would have remained head coach at Penn State long enough to become the winningest coach in NCAA Div-1, much less all of NCAA football history. It was always about the wins for Penn State and Paterno. The wins are the symbol of shame, of the culture that put the institution before the vulnerable. Only with the wins and Paterno's record erased can Penn State ever hope for a clean slate.

Jordan Walsh, Cardozo School of Law 2011, is a Graduate Fellow to Professor Marci Hamilton and a native Pennsylvanian. She can be reached at jordan.walsh610@gmail.com.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on July 23, 2012 10:48 PM.

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