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Reaction to NCAA's unprecedented Penn State sanctions; more mail

My column Monday criticizing NCAA president Mark Emmert for his despotic handling of the Penn State case drew voluminous (more than 500 e-mails) and often heated reactions, which I'll sum up simply by saying that sentiments like this ...

This is probably the 1,000,000th e-mail you will receive like this, but your article truly sucked. The NCAA dealt out the punishment they should have (should have gone farther in my opinion), because this was probably the worst scandal in the history of college athletics. The organization in this instance did not only what it could, but what it should have. Your article was fairly terrible and I know you are capable of better journalism than this.--Rick McCray, Greensboro, N.C.

.... Greatly outnumbered these.

Thanks for getting it right. It takes some guts to say it publicly. I am not sure how an organization in charge of determining amateur status suddenly became the morality police.--Brian, Ridgewood, N.J.

From the day the Jerry Sandusky news first broke last November, this has been an extremely difficult topic to write about. While we all agree the Penn State scandal was utterly reprehensible, our reactions may differ based on our own experiences. Since Monday's column was written, I've heard from numerous sexual abuse victims, long-standing Penn State faculty members, educators, counselors, people who'd never heard of Joe Paterno before this story reached CNN and people who've followed his career since the 1960s. All had varied and deeply emotional reactions to Monday's announcement, and I greatly respect every one of them.

To be clear: My sole issue here is the ramshackle manner by which the NCAA handled this case. I have no sympathy for Penn State, beyond the current players that got needlessly mixed up in the aftermath. Contrary to what many of you wrote, I do not believe the penalties were too harsh, only that employing banal measures like bowl bans and vacated wins trivialize the heinous crimes at the center of this scandal. However, many of you feel that I'm the one minimizing the Sandusky tragedy by objecting to the sanctions.

I'm not here to convince anyone that I'm right and they're wrong. We're all equally entitled to our emotions and our opinions. I do believe, however, that even if you think Penn State deserves every form of punishment imaginable for the unconscionable acts that took place on its campus, there are still valid questions to be raised about the uncharted manner in which Emmert and the NCAA handled this situation. Their actions could have serious repercussions moving forward.

I see a lot in your story about how the NCAA screwed up, but what should they have done instead? It seems to me they were in a very tough situation. Can you imagine the public outrage if the penalties to Penn State were seen as too lenient? No matter what the NCAA did in this case, lots of people were going to be unhappy.--Jon, Minneapolis

No disagreement on that last point. The NCAA first had to make the fundamental decision of whether to get involved at all. Sixty years of precedent -- it had never previously sanctioned a school for criminal matters separate from traditional recruiting or amateurism violations -- suggested it would not, so the NCAA was inevitably going to draw criticism from those (like me) who felt that it overstepped its bounds. But given the immense public pressure for the NCAA not only to levy sanctions but also to obliterate Penn State's program, and the outrage would have been far greater had it sat back and left this to the courts and the feds. It's clear from Emmert's comments Monday that he all but made up his mind on Nov. 5 that the NCAA would have its say, even if that meant inventing a completely new disciplinary process on the fly, and given that anything less than the Death Penalty or something comparable would have been unsatisfactory.

I was never on the Death Penalty train, but given a choice between that and the course of action that Emmert took (besides the $60 million fine/charitable donation, which is constructive and justified), I'd take the Death Penalty. It's cleaner, it's less arbitrary and it would certainly deflate the "reverence for Penn State football [that] permeated every level of the University Community" that's cited in the NCAA's letter. But as my colleague Michael Rosenberg wrote: "Mark Emmert had enough. He could no longer stomach the disgusting, sickening idea of Penn State winning football games."

That's what this was in a nutshell: As penance for allowing football to disgustingly dictate university leaders' decision not to report a suspected child molester, we're sentencing you to years and years of bad football. Again, I realize many of you feel this is a perfectly justifiable sentence. But, in a way, it sadly reemphasizes football. It shifts the narrative from sex abuse and administrative atrocities to which players will transfer, which recruits will decommit, whether the players will stay motivated, etc., etc.

Stewart, Is the need for university presidents to reassert authority a motive behind the method and severity of the NCAA's action? I have to think parts of the Freeh Report hit home with many of the Executive Committee members -- a deified coach driving emotion, publicity and money to the point he became the de facto "Premier" of the campus, governing whatever he wanted to govern all the way up the executive chain. Do you think the message here is that while coaches may have the power at the university level, the NCAA has the ultimate say and they are willing to use it in a Wyatt Earp-like fashion?--Mike, Arlington, Va.

I give Emmert and the presidents the benefit of the doubt that their primary intent was simply to punish an institution for what they deemed "an unprecedented failure of institutional integrity." The crimes and cover-up were simply too heinous not to act swiftly once the Freeh Report gave them that opportunity. But let's not kid ourselves. They also seized this moment to put on a show of power over a sport which NCAA had long since lost control of, complete with an unprecedented televised news conference and accompanying Emmert media tour. "The message is the presidents and chancellors are in charge," said Oregon State president and executive committee chair Ed Ray.

Yet, some of their holier-than-thou comments condemning Penn State's football culture ring hollow when these very same presidents go back to their schools and sign off on $4 million coaches' contracts and $350 million football palaces. I don't doubt many aspects of Penn State's governance breakdown hit close to home, and perhaps that contributed to their sense of urgency. Still, I find it astonishing that Emmert and crew spent all of 10 days deliberating over such monumental penalties -- with two relevant criminal cases still outstanding, no less. Then, to top it off, they bullied Penn State's president into signing away the school's appeal rights by threatening even harsher penalties. It's something you'd expect from a police state, not from an association of higher-education institutions.

But they did all this knowing full well there's be no public sympathy for Penn State. This was the perfect case to send a "message," even if many of the same people that agreed to it will go right back to their own football-obsessed campuses and ignore the message.

Stewart, reading through the Penn State football doomsday projections, it seems most writers are ignoring a couple of important "pros" for potential recruits: 1. the quality of education they could receive at Penn State and 2. the opportunity to play at "Penn State!". Granted, some elite players may choose to go elsewhere to increase their exposure. But I have a hard time believing that kids who have dreamed of playing at Penn State, or value the education they would receive at Penn State, will suddenly reject the opportunity.-- Tim Buehner, Tallahassee, Fla.

Those are very good points. However, those considerations may do more to mitigate an exodus of current players -- they have already developed an attachment to the university and have begun progress toward a Penn State degree -- than temper a massive recruiting drop-off. Remember when USC got its two-year bowl ban and the NCAA allowed juniors and seniors to freely transfer? Only a handful of players -- all of them backups in search of more playing time -- took advantage. The others felt their overall USC experience wouldn't be significantly diminished without a bowl berth. Penn State, unlike USC, is not littered with former five-star recruits buried on its depth chart, so that same option might not be as readily available (at least not from elite programs). Incoming freshmen and underclassmen that could still pan out may be another story.

As for recruiting, there are certainly still high school kids in Pennsylvania who grew up with dreams of being a Nittany Lion and will still embrace that opportunity. But it's unrealistic to think most other upper-tier recruits -- the ones who have their choice between offers from numerous BCS programs -- would opt for a school where they cannot compete for a conference championship (more damning than the bowl ban, in my opinion) in the near future. For at least the next few years, Bill O'Brien will likely have to take a Boise State-type approach and focus on otherwise overlooked guys that he feels can become productive Big Ten players. If he can keep the Nittany Lions from sinking to the basement for these next couple of seasons, maybe he can start luring back four-star guys by 2015 or '16 with the carrot of returning to postseason eligibility as juniors and seniors. More realistically, Penn State will decline on the field, and that, in turn, will make it less appealing to choice recruits.

Will the NCAA allow football players to transfer next year and any subsequent year during the four-year period without having to sit out a year? Obviously this ruling falls mere weeks before the start of fall practice, and it seems unreasonable to think most of these players would have the time and opportunity to look for a new school to transfer before practice/classes begin.-- Chris Kimbell, Dallas

Penn State players can transfer up until the 2013 preseason. Other coaches can pursue them like they're recruits, so long as they notify Penn State of their interest, and the players can keep taking official visits throughout the year. It seems to me this ultimately will cause the most instability and thus pose the biggest challenge for O'Brien in managing his roster. Guys may recommit now but change their mind in a month or two. That, of course, directly impacts not only the current roster but also the recruiting needs of the program going forward.

Finally someone got this right! You have never written a better or more factual article than this one about the hypocrisy of the NCAA.-- Robbie Lindsey, Birmingham, Ala.

Thanks.

You couldn't be more wrong on this. I for one welcome an attempt to initiate culture change and if Emmert is the one to do so, so be it.--Michael Young, Kansas City

Fair enough.

Stewart: Can you give us your take on what the Penn State sanctions mean to the Big Ten as a whole? The loss of a premier program from championship or bowl contention for four years is basically making it a two-horse race in both divisions (Ohio State and Wisconsin/Michigan and Nebraska) although Iowa and Michigan State are both competitive. Also, Ohio State has a bowl ban this year as well. If I were Jim Delany, I would really be sweating it out right now.--Jerry, Gainesville, Fla.

Well here's the first problem for the Big Ten: One-third of the teams in the Leaders Division are ineligible for the championship this year due to failures in leadership. Still want to keep those names, Delany?

There's no question that the Big Ten will take a hit. Mind you, Penn State went through a down period before, posting losing records four times in five years from 2000-04. It didn't noticeably affect the league then; Michigan was still humming along, Ohio State was just emerging as a power under Jim Tressel and teams like Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois enjoyed moments in the sun. But Penn State also didn't lose much of its luster, either. There was constant speculation over whether Joe Paterno should retire (which, as we learned later, his impotent bosses tried and failed to convince him to), but Penn State, for the most part, was still Penn State.

Now it's likely that Penn State's profile will diminish considerably. It will no longer be a king, or maybe anything close to it. The conference added a fourth marquee, national-brand television draw last year with Nebraska; now it's essentially back to three. I don't know that it will affect the league's on-field reputation that much -- it should still be able to produce four or five Top-25 programs in a given year -- but it could end up costing the conference a fortune when it negotiates its next network television contract in 2014-15. If Penn State is abysmal, carries a stigma and no longer draws eyeballs, it could devalue their rights considerably.

The media has been beating the drum of "culture change" surrounding college football ever since we realized the full weight of the Penn State scandal. But I haven't seen one sports writer take a critical look at the media's role in creating this culture. I followed SEC Media Days coverage on Twitter and it was embarrassing -- and this is from big-time, national college football writers. How, in your opinion, can the media do its part to usher in a "culture change?"--Dan, Ankeny, Iowa

As I wrote last November after the scandal broke, we need to stop lionizing coaches. During SEC Media Days, ESPN ran a graphic comparing the five-year records of Bear Bryant and Nick Saban (they're almost identical) under the header "Another Legend in the Making?" Seriously? Saban is the best coach in the country today, bar none, but the guy already has a statue of himself, and now we're throwing around "Legend?" Message not received, apparently.

It's unrealistic to think the media will ever stop glamorizing coaches and players. It's sports. Heroes and goats are intrinsic to wins and losses. But I don't think it's unreasonable for we in the media to perform our own "gut check" to stop and remind ourselves that we don't know our subjects intimately. I know a lot of coaches personally. Many are very nice guys. We have good conversations. But I'm not qualified to speak about anything beyond their personalities and coaching acumen. I will praise a coach for his offensive innovation or his refreshing candor, but I will never again hold someone up to be some grand statesman or role model. I hope many of my colleagues feel the same way.

If the NCAA gig doesn't work out for Emmert, he can always go to NASCAR. They change the rules every week too.--Dave Gardner, Salem, Mass.

Or he can just run the BCS.

I think it more likely that, after a series of stories at the onset of this year's football season, Penn State's football program will suffer the same fate Indiana University's basketball program did a few years ago: fading into a temporary, yet well-deserved obscurity. Reporters can only repeat the same line so many times and, once the current players have left, the Penn State story will be finished.--Frank Riely, Floyd Knobs, Ind.

I agree to some extent, but this was obviously a much more publicized scandal than Kelvin Sampson three-way calling recruits, and the penalties far more severe. While the Hoosiers certainly dipped into obscurity, there wasn't much doubt that they'd eventually return, whether under Tom Crean or someone else. And once they did, most nonpartisan fans were happy to see it. With Penn State, much like SMU, there are questions if the Nittany Lions can ever return to prominence. If they do, it will be interesting to see whether the public is willing to turn the page and embrace the reinvented program or if the stain of the Sandusky scandal will turn Penn State into a terminal villain.

Sir, While your opinion is well reasoned, you may have missed the bigger picture: By punishing Penn State THIS hard, THIS quickly and THIS decisively, the next coach in Paterno's position will think twice about "protecting" his program by concealing criminal activity by one of his subordinates, even when it does not rise to the level of raping children.--Warren Nitti, Paramus, N.J.

While I fear that's wishful thinking, I sincerely hope you're right. Ultimately, what matters most here is not the process, not the punishment, not the repercussions for Penn State or the Big Ten, but that something like this never happens again. If the NCAA is somehow responsible for that, it deserves all the praise in the world.

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