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Penn State punishment debate, Kings/Barons fallout, more mail

I swear we'll start talking actual football soon, but my inbox was flooded with reactions to last week's Kings/Barons Mailbag and the Penn State Freeh Report. I'll do my best to address both here. Maybe by next week we'll be ready to start breaking down Michigan-Alabama.

Hi Stewart. NCAA President Mark Emmert has said that he won't rule out any punishments for Penn State up to and including the Death Penalty. I like to consider myself a rational human being, and I consider the actions of the dozen or so included in the Freeh Report as being independent of both the football program and the university as an institution. With that in mind, is the Death Penalty really an option?-- Kyle Tennant, Franklin Furnace, Ohio

I'll give Emmert this: He's far more candid publically than his predecessors, and in theory that's a good thing. The NCAA could certainly use a strong voice. The problem is that he has a penchant for espousing things he can't personally deliver.

You may recall that last year Emmert tried to flex his muscles and hurry through legislation to provide a $2,000 scholarship stipend for athletes. The membership overturned the measure a few months later. Emmert also raised eyebrows last fall by saying the Death Penalty was not "off the table" in the Miami/Nevin Shapiro investigation, and while that's technically true, it will ultimately be up to the Committee on Infractions. The same holds true with Penn State. It's not his call to make, yet he's now put the NCAA in position to look cowardly if it doesn't take action, which is unfortunate considering it still remains incredibly murky if Penn State actually violated NCAA bylaws.

I've maintained for some time now that the NCAA should leave the matter of punishment to more important bodies, in this case the Departments of Justice and Education and the State of Pennsylvania. But in the wake of the Freeh Report there is now considerable pressure for the NCAA to do something severe, even if it means bucking all precedent and protocol. Personally, I think the Death Penalty would accomplish little besides vengeance. While I strongly disagree with Kyle that the actions of Paterno/Spanier/Curley/Schultz were independent of the university -- they made decisions on behalf of the university -- shutting down football at Penn State would not directly punish any of them. The people that would suffer most would be innocent athletes, both in football and other sports; Penn State's opponents, in and outside the Big Ten; and local businesses that depend on Nittany Lions game weekends.

It seems to me the people calling for the Death Penalty primarily want to punish the Penn State community for caring too much about football. News flash: We all care too much about football. That warped culture presumably contributed to the cover-up, but it was not the actual crime. If the NCAA feels the need to step in, it needs to come up with a punishment that doesn't bring so much collateral damage. Personally, I'm struggling to come up with one that doesn't seem trite.

However...

Stewart, with all the rumors floating around regarding the NCAA stepping into the Penn State mess, what do you think of forgoing the usual penalties (scholarship reductions, bowl bans or the dreaded Death Penalty) and letting Penn State play but take ALL its revenue (including a bowl, if the team makes one) and donate/distribute it to the victims and families?-- Bill Van Iden, San Francisco

Now that would actually accomplish something productive.

Note that Penn State did donate $1.1 million from its bowl revenue last year to the newly formed Center for the Protection of Children. But that didn't stop USA Today's Christine Brennan, a vocal Death Penalty proponent, from writing that: "... eschewing even a modicum of class or dignity, the school accepted a bowl bid after last season." Apparently allowing the 2011 players to finish their season meant the school wasn't "serious about the Sandusky scandal," even though it had just paid $6.5 million to the Freeh Group to find out everything it did wrong.

These are the kinds of leaps in logic people are making in their thirst for blood. Kudos to Bill for actually thinking of something that goes beyond pure vengeance.

Stewart, you are improperly labeling yourself as "naïve" when it comes to your original response to the Penn State scandal. You weren't naïve at all; in fact, your response was (and still is) absolutely proper. We didn't know the details, and too many people were ready to jump to conclusions. Now that the facts are known, you are properly and appropriately repulsed by the actions of the Penn State power brokers. I commend you for taking the right initial approach in light of the serious allegations, and I also commend you for your response when the facts came out.-- Ken Waite, Indianapolis

That's very kind of you to say, Ken, and I can assure you my approach to sensitive stories that involve criminal aspects will not change. But I was most definitely naïve about some things, in particular Joe Paterno. While I never held him up as some saintly figure, it wasn't until the Freeh Report revelation about Paterno's knowledge of the 1998 investigation that I truly believed he was capable of such a heinous and intentional cover-up. And I really have no good excuse for why.

The deification of Paterno began long before I started covering the sport, and in fact before I was even born. The notion that he was morally superior to the typical coach was never something I personally witnessed. The man I observed over the last 12 years of his life was stubborn, surly and defiant of anyone who dared question the way he ran his program, in particular the way he disciplined his players, despite a rash of issues in the 2000s. At the same time, he was also increasingly senile, and in the early stages of the story I figured that might explain some of Paterno's inaction regarding Sandusky.

Now, of course, it's crystal clear that Paterno knew exactly what he was doing. Maybe he didn't comprehend just how disturbed Sandusky was, but he had two clear warning signs and still chose to keep the matter in-house. The coach I observed would absolutely have been power-drunk and paranoid enough to put his program above the safety of children. At some point over the years I must have internalized the mythology that Paterno was nobler than the typical football coach, despite myriad evidence to the contrary. I deeply regret that.

I looked up all the sportswriters and you made the Peasants list. I guess we're the same now!-- Mike, Louisville

Hmm. I wonder what that's referencing.

Stewart, I'm sure you'll get a million of these, but I'm curious as to how you justify your ranking of Notre Dame in the Kings category, even after what has been basically two decades of irrelevancy?-- William, Naperville, Ill.

This, not surprisingly, was the No. 1 complaint with the list. While the Irish have rarely been Kings on the field since 1993, remember that these categories are based on perception, not reality. Despite its struggles, Notre Dame is the only program in the country that enters the season knowing at least 11 of its 12 games will be on NBC, ABC or ESPN (I'm counting the Oklahoma game even though it hasn't been announced). Its athletic director is one of the 12 people who devised and will oversee the coming playoff. One of the six most important bowl games going forward is actively discussing a deal with the school. The marketplace is still treating Notre Dame as a King, and given that, I'd hardly call the program irrelevant.

It's fair to ask, however, how long it can still maintain that level of cachet if it keeps hovering around 8-4. Of the 13 schools in the Kings category, Notre Dame is the only one I have trouble envisioning eventually returning to national championship contention. Notre Dame has managed to mostly maintain its aura despite being so far removed from its last stint as a true contender, but we'll see whether that remains the case in the sport's new playoff era.

Stewart, with the Big Ten-Pac 12 scheduling agreement falling through, I was wondering what you thought the chances of the Big Ten going to a nine-game conference schedule are? I am an SEC fan myself, and I personally would like the SEC to adopt a nine-game conference schedule also. If the Big Ten, Pac 12, ACC, and Big 12 all go to nine-game conference schedules, then what are the chances of the SEC following suit?-- Jon O, Palatka, Fla.

The Big Ten will definitely revisit going to nine conference games. Remember, the league originally decided last summer to do so starting in 2017, only to scrap the idea after reaching the scheduling agreement with the Pac-12 (which it now seems the Pac-12 never fully agreed to internally). If anything the Big Ten should only be further incentivized now with the forthcoming playoff, which intends to reward strength of schedule. Jim Delany has been very outspoken in his belief that teams both in his league and others have unduly watered down their schedules since going to 12 games. Adding a ninth conference game not only helps reverse that, it presumably creates more appealing games for the league's television network. He'll be pushing for it.

But I don't necessarily see the SEC following suit. Besides Nick Saban, there haven't been many SEC proponents of the nine-game conference slate. Schools that already play a traditional rival out of conference (Florida vs. Florida State, Georgia vs. Georgia Tech) or simply want to get to six wins (here's looking at you, Kentucky) have reason to oppose it. Two factors that could change things going forward: the impending creation of an SEC network, and the possibility that only playing eight teams in a 14-team league could create some serious scheduling inequities. And of course, if ever the day comes when an SEC team gets left out of the playoff due to a weak nonconference schedule ... well, you can imagine.

Which of the Kings right now is closest to getting moved to Baron status when you do this again in five years, and which of the Barons is closest to moving up? My guess would be Miami as far as moving down if the Hurricanes continue their Tennessee-like slide.-- Ward, Birmingham

I was surprised by how many people felt this way about Miami. It's undoubtedly been a rough eight years for the program, and it might get worse with pending sanctions. But this is still a program that's won five national titles the past 30 years, more than any other program. You don't think recruits still hold a reverence for The U and all the NFL stars it's produced? You don't think that program will eventually thrive again with one of the richest talent pools in the country in its backyard? May I remind Ward that his beloved Tide had an even longer dry spell between their 1999 SEC championship and 2009 SEC and national titles and also faced crippling sanctions, but still sat among my Kings in 2007? A team that wins that many national titles doesn't lose its luster overnight.

As I wrote last week, Penn State seems the most likely to fall, for obvious reasons. The program most likely to move up is Oregon, though the Ducks probably need to win a national title to make that ascension. They came awfully close two years ago, and as long as Chip Kelly is there it will remain a possibility. Though as we saw last winter, it's no certainty Kelly will be there for long.

The fact Reuben Foster switched from my Tide to Auburn bothers me greatly, but it's not the fact that he did it, but how he did it. How does a kid go from being "100-percent committed," as he said he was the day before, to spitting venom at Alabama like he did last Thursday?-- Greg, Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Well, that's easy: He's 17.

You must be a masochist, given your desire to produce another Program Pecking Order column, because people like me remember the original column, and your follow-up the week after, in which you said the one change you would make is switching Arkansas and Clemson. In the past five years, in spite of the Petrino scandal, it would be mind boggling to think that you would still keep Clemson ahead of Arkansas in this pecking order. Care to explain?-- Nick, Seattle

Embarrassingly, I must admit that you have a better memory than I did. I can tell you, however, that even without remembering that, I came incredibly close to moving Arkansas up to Barons last week but hesitated only because I wondered whether I was putting too much stock in the last two seasons. But apparently I was already thinking this way five years earlier, so let's just go ahead and make it official: Arkansas, you are a Baron. I promise I won't forget next time.

Clemson can stay where it is.

Stewart, I am confused by the NCAA's eligibility rules when it comes to baseball players. Mark Appel declared for the June MLB draft, seemingly hired an agent, got drafted, negotiated with the Pirates, then decided not to play pro ball and return to Stanford. How is this allowed? If a collegiate football or basketball player is even in the same room with an agent, he loses his eligibility. Why are the baseball eligibility rules different?-- Eric Goolsby, Manhattan, Kan.

That's a great question, one I had to do some research to properly answer.

First of all, Major League Baseball is different from the NFL because players don't declare for the draft. Teams can choose any eligible player, either out of high school or after his junior or senior years of college. Since Appel never formally declared his intent to turn pro, he never relinquished his eligibility. Secondly, in any sport, the NCAA makes a distinction between an agent and an advisor. Players are allowed to consult with someone (presumably an agent) regarding their likely draft status, potential monetary value, etc. Football players do this all the time when deciding whether to come out early. However, they can't sign a contract with that person, and that person cannot directly negotiate with a team on their behalf. And that's where it gets really gray and sticky with baseball players.

By all accounts, the reason Appel came back was that the Pirates wouldn't offer a signing bonus commensurate with agent Scott Boras' demands. But Boras would insist that he only advised Appel as to how much he was worth, and that Appel negotiated the deal himself (as he's allowed to). It's a largely unenforceable distinction, one the NCAA has been wrestling with for years. A few years ago, former Oklahoma State pitcher Andrew Oliver sued the organization for declaring him ineligible for the 2008 NCAA tournament after it found he used an agent to negotiate his deal with the Twins. He won, which could have forced the NCAA to change its rule, but the eventual $750,000 settlement between the parties dismissed the ruling. It's been suggested that the NCAA ought to just let players in all sports sign with agents, thus allowing them to make more informed decisions, but it hasn't gotten very far. In the meantime, players will just have to settle for incredibly high-profile, well-connected advisors.

Stewart, you have Ole Miss a Knight, yet Mississippi State at Peasant. MSU has beaten Ole Miss the past three years and finished with better records. You need to do your homework.-- Al Fava, Collierville, Tenn.

I did some homework and found out that neither team has finished in the top 10 since 1969, and Mississippi State since 1940. The Mannings may be the only thing keeping both schools from the bottom rung. But congratulations on the win streak.

CINCINNATI A PEASANT?? You're kidding me, correct? The Bearcats have had 10-win seasons in four of their last five seasons. Less than 10 teams in the country can lay claim to that. They have won the BIG EAST three of the past four years, each year doing it while battling through countless injuries. If you are too lazy to do research for a simple article, don't do it. Ridiculous.-- Dan, Cincinnati

Aw, that's cute.

Why Notre Dame is a King I will never know. I thought better of you than the sort to romanticize a has-been from the 1950s. If a huge following merits this, then I assume Lady Gaga is a musical genius?-- Chip, Richmond, Ky.

Terrible analogy. If Notre Dame could find a quarterback with an eighth the talent of Lady Gaga, we wouldn't even be having this conversation. Maybe Katy Perry?

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