Sorry to disappoint, but this will not be a column ripping NCAA president Mark Emmert. I've penned plenty of those over the past 14 months, starting on the July 2012 morning in which he grossly overstepped his bounds in imposing Draconian penalties against Penn State over a matter that should have been handled inside a real courtroom, not the NCAA's Kangaroo court.
My opinion was not particularly popular at that time. With the Jerry Sandusky child abuse verdicts and the explosive Freeh Report still fresh in the public's mind, many wanted the NCAA to shut down Penn State football entirely. With the passage of time, however, and as the focus has shifted to coach Bill O'Brien and the Nittany Lions players having to deal with a four-year bowl ban and mass scholarship reductions, much of the public began to see Emmert's gratuitous p.r. play for what it was. Emmert was a fairly uncontroversial figure until he announced those sanctions, but his approval began rapidly sinking with each clunky NCAA misstep over the following year.
So today I laud Emmert and the NCAA for taking the first step in righting their wrong against Penn State, even as he refuses to admit he ever acted out of place to begin with, and even as this decision only reinforces the common perception that the NCAA arbitrarily makes up rules as it goes along.
Former U.S. senator George Mitchell, the NCAA-appointed independent athletics integrity monitor for Penn State, said on Tuesday he recommended easing the scholarship reductions (Penn State will get back five initial scholarships next year and will be at full allocation of 25 initial and 85 total scholarships by 2016-17) because they "most directly affect student-athletes." That was always the biggest injustice here. A generation of current and former Penn State players were punished on the football field for the heinous off-field acts of a pedophile and the administrators who failed to stop him. Worse, dozens of potential future Nittany Lions were denied the opportunity of receiving a scholarship.
And so, purportedly because of "observable change" by Mitchell in the way the school runs its athletic department, the NCAA will begin righting that wrong. Furthermore, it opened the door to the possibility of "consider[ing] additional mitigation" of the school's four-year postseason ban in the future "depending upon Penn State's continued progress." Based on officials' glowing comments on Tuesday, that future day seems all but certain, perhaps coming as soon as this offseason.
"... Penn State has made a serious, good faith effort to embrace and adopt the changes needed to enhance its future," said Mitchell, who has issued a quarterly and annual report. "President Rodney Erickson and his administration and the leaders of the Board of Trustees have acted with courage and fortitude in implementing the changed required by the Athletics Integrity Agreement."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the groans could be heard anew at USC, which has not seen one ounce of relief for its own heavy-handed sanctions stemming from the Reggie Bush scandal. In fact, it never will. As Emmert said on Tuesday, "This should not be seen as a precedent for handling other cases."
USC wasn't afforded an independent integrity monitor, but I can tell you firsthand that the program made wholesale changes in 2010. The president and athletic director left. Current AD Pat Haden beefed up the compliance department beyond any previous national standard. Visitors to practice were credentialed and made to sign a waiver that they'd follow NCAA regulations. That's a culture change.
But USC's case -- like those involving Ohio State, Oregon, Miami and many more -- was handled in traditional form by the NCAA's Committee on Infractions. The unprecedented and authoritarian measures Emmert took in forcing Penn State's consent decree allowed him and the Executive Committee to subsequently make these unprecedented reductions.
"It's important to remember this case has been handled in an extraordinary manner because of the extraordinary circumstances of the situation," Emmert said on Tuesday.
He's right in saying the nature of the Penn State scandal was far more serious and tragic than standard fare booster payments or agent activity. The problem from the beginning was that he still chose to apply customary NCAA remedies, such as scholarship reductions and a bowl ban. A $60 million fine to go toward child protection charities was severe and appropriate. The mandated reforms that Penn State has been instituting (and which constituted the basis of Mitchell's positive report) were admirable. Both had or will have positive affects.
The scholarships and the bowl ban, on the other hand, accomplished nothing.
At least the NCAA finally recognized that. At least O'Brien and his innocent players can now see light at the end of the tunnel. It sure would be nice if Emmert just admitted the organization never should have gone down that road in the first place, but clearly that's never going to happen. He'll continue to take his share of heat for damaging the organization's credibility, but give him and the executive committee credit for beginning to ultimately right their wrong.