Penn State players face difficult choice after crippling sanctions
Steve Bench will fly to Pennsylvania on Tuesday. He can't get to State College soon enough. His son, Steven, recently moved from the family home in Bainbridge, Ga., to Happy Valley to play quarterback at Penn State. Steven was one of the people the NCAA punished Monday, and the elder Bench wants to be there in person to help Steven figure out his next move.
Steven Bench didn't have anything to do with the cover-up that led to historic sanctions for Penn State football. He was in first grade when Penn State's leaders decided to bury an allegation and allowed former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky to continue raping children. NCAA president Mark Emmert didn't punish former president Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley or former vice president Gary Schultz at all during Monday's dog-and-pony-show press conference in Indianapolis.
Emmert and the NCAA stripped coach Joe Paterno of his wins since 1998 in a symbolic gesture that won't destroy the late Paterno's legacy or reputation beyond what Paterno's own wrongdoing already has. The $60 million fine is a good, constructive sanction because it will go toward helping child abuse victims, but it is easily payable by a school with a $1.8 billion endowment.
Steven Bench and his teammates will pay the most meaningful share of the NCAA portion of the penance for what Penn State's leaders did. That isn't right, but that is the NCAA's only option because it lacks the power to punish those who actually did wrong. The NCAA did reserve the right to punish those complicit in the cover-up, but why offer them due process and not the current players? There is as much evidence against Curley and Schultz -- who have been charged with perjury in Pennsylvania -- as the NCAA had against former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel and far more evidence than the NCAA used to torpedo former USC assistant Todd McNair's career.
Steve Bench doesn't consider the NCAA the bad guy here. He is a parent, and he has worked in the public school system. He understands this case is about something far more important than football. He knows that the real victims are the ones Sandusky preyed upon. He understands why Emmert and the NCAA felt they had to send a message. Still, Bench spent much of January researching whether the NCAA had the authority to hammer Penn State's current football team for criminal acts and not violations of NCAA bylaw. He spoke to college coaches and administrators trying to gauge whether he should allow his son to sign with Penn State instead of taking the scholarship offer he already had from Rice. They told Bench and his family this case was different because Penn State hadn't broken any NCAA bylaws. Monday's sanctions blindsided him.
"It's very difficult. Everything has changed so dramatically -- not only since the Freeh Report," the elder Bench said Monday. "If you listened to everybody out there, they say the NCAA can't get involved in this. Then they grant special powers at a special time. I guess they get to do that."
Now the Benches must decide whether Steven will stay at Penn State -- where he'll play on a depleted roster and never make a postseason game -- or whether he'll try to latch on somewhere else. For Bench, this is probably a less difficult decision than it will be for his older teammates. They have progressed toward Penn State degrees and built relationships at the school. Do they just pick up and move? Or do they stay?
One of the things Emmert got right was granting blanket permission to Penn State players to transfer to any school and play immediately. To further help those players, the NCAA is allowing schools at the 85-player scholarship limit to go over the limit to take Penn State transfers provided that they dock themselves a comparable number of scholarships the following year.
(It remains unclear whether schools that face scholarship reductions because of NCAA sanctions -- such as USC, Ohio State or North Carolina -- can take Penn State players. In light of the fact that Emmert and the NCAA have now set the precedent that they will tackle issues that actually matter, it makes the penalties handed to USC for Reggie Bush taking money from an agent seem pretty silly. So it would be poetic justice if USC won the national title using a defensive tackle acquired because of the Penn State sanctions.)
So what should the current Penn State players do? Stay or go? Let's look at the sanctions and the repercussions.
First things first: No matter what anyone says, the death penalty would have been worse. Canceling an entire season (or two) would have cost Penn State even more on top of the fine because the school would have lost millions in football ticket sales and television payouts from the Big Ten. That also could have hurt the other sports at Penn State which rely on football revenue to survive. From a competitive standpoint, erasing the program for a few years would have set the rebuilding process back even further. What will now take 10-15 years might have taken at least 20.
With the possible exception of freshmen who redshirt this year, no current Penn State player will play in another postseason game because of the four-year ban. Had Emmert truly wanted to marginalize Penn State's program for decades, he could have made this a 10-, 15- or 20-year ban. Still, that doesn't mean Penn State will be fine in four years. Because of the ban, no elite recruit is likely to even consider Penn State for at least three years. USC survived its two-year ban so well because Lane Kiffin could promise recruits that they would play for championships for at least two seasons. Penn State coach Bill O'Brien can't make that promise for two years, and it's unlikely that an elite player would consider the possibility until at least the year before the ban is lifted. Meanwhile, the loss of 20 scholarships a year beginning in the 2013-14 school year will ensure that Penn State doesn't have the depth to compete in the Big Ten. Who will go to Penn State now? Players considering low-level Big Ten and high-level MAC schools who decide Penn State's facilities and resources trump the possibility of playing in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.
Sophomores and freshmen who have no better options beyond that level are probably better off staying. Anyone who can get a scholarship at a competitive power conference school should probably leave. For upperclassmen, it's a little bit trickier. If they're likely NFL draftees, they should leave immediately. A good program will take them. If they aren't NFL-bound, then they need to consider staying. Before leaving, they must examine how many of their course credits will transfer. Did they spend three or four years working toward a degree that isn't available at another school? Will they lose progress by transferring? Is the new school's degree as prestigious as the one from Penn State? Which degree makes it easier to get a job? These are the questions those players must ask. For those who have already graduated, there is little harm in leaving and getting a free master's degree while playing elsewhere.
During the sanctions, and probably for several years after, Penn State will be comparable to Indiana or another low-level Big Ten program and will recruit like one of those programs. The best players in Pennsylvania will go elsewhere. Expect Ohio State, Michigan and Notre Dame to scoop up many of the top recruits in the state. During this time, it will be interesting to learn whether Penn State fans love their program or whether they loved their winning program. If they keep packing Beaver Stadium through what will be some awfully lean years, then it's true love, and they'll probably provide the resources to help the program recover after the sanctions expire. If they stop coming to games, then Penn State may never climb back to prominence.
That question won't be answered until long after the eligibility of Bench and the other Nittany Lions expires. For the moment, the players must decide their best course of action now that the NCAA has dropped its hammer on Penn State. Some will stay. Most will probably leave. They didn't do anything wrong, but they'll have to pay a price anyway.