As Penn State football returns to normalcy, will it remember its past?
After a NCAA Executive Committee meeting Monday, and based on recommendations from university athletic oversight monitor George Mitchell, Penn State football became nearly whole again.
The NCAA lifted Penn State’s postseason ban, effective immediately, two years early. The program will also receive its full complement of 85 scholarships starting in the 2015-16 school year. Shortly after the NCAA announced its decision, the Big Ten decreed that the Nittany Lions were eligible to play in the league’s championship game this December.
First-year coach James Franklin now has no handicaps in reconstructing a football power. Two years later, Penn State can run far from the shadows of horrible acts committed by a horrible man. It can feel everything is in order again.
Only should it? Should everything feel normal already?
Maybe there’s no easy or unequivocal answer to that. In the rolling flat lands choked with tailgaters outside 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium, opinions were probably pretty unanimous even before Monday’s announcements. And Penn State faithful did have their points. Jerry Sandusky committed crimes. Administrators and/or coaches concealed information that might have helped stop him. The NCAA’s initial punishment blew off every standard procedure for punishments. None of this had to do with the players on the team now or with a new coach and new administrators. Why should they continue to suffer for past sins?
Still, the intended target in July 2012 was a culture. It was the worship of a program that could mangle clear thinking and a sense of right and wrong beyond recognition. That could afflict everyone from the suits in campus offices to the fans in the Beaver Stadium seats. As NCAA president Mark Emmert put it when he announced the initial four-year ban and scholarship reductions, Penn State served as a “cautionary tale of athletics overwhelming core values of the institution.” Eradicating that delusion was a worthwhile mission.
By clobbering Penn State that July, maybe Emmert and Co. weren’t fair to players. They weren’t fair to coaches. But they just about guaranteed no one would gloss over the lesson. Not the school, not its fans, not anyone who might conspire in some small way to recreate the same environment that helped enable a monster.
Two years later, have they made it too easy to forget?
The Mitchell report suggests Penn State hasn’t, from an administrative architecture standpoint. It says the school has made “significant strides” in fostering an ethical culture, among other key initiatives. It says the establishment of an independently functioning compliance unit is “one of Penn State’s most significant achievements over the course of the past two years.” It notes that an athletics integrity officer “has proven an effective conduit for communication and collaboration among the Athletics Department, the Office of Ethics and Compliance, the administration, and the faculty.” It notes a jump in self-reported NCAA violations from nine in 2012-13 to 23 in 2013-14 and cites that as “indicative of a healthy athletics compliance program.”
Penn State is trying internally, Mitchell suggests. And as a result of that effort, he recommended that the trying sanctions levied on the football program -- the bowl ban and the scholarship reductions -- be eliminated as soon as possible.
“My recommendations, both in 2013 and in this report, relate to elements of the sanctions that most directly affect Penn State’s student-athletes, who bear no personal responsibility for the underlying reasons for the sanctions,” Mitchell wrote. “Many of these student-athletes chose to remain at Penn State in spite of the sanctions and the opportunity to transfer to another school without penalty. Many Penn State football players demonstrated loyalty by remaining at their University for two years without the prospect of playing in a post-season bowl game.”
That certainly was no great joy. The effect of scholarship reductions and the resulting roster-depth challenges might last a few more seasons. There was certainly a price paid here.
But Franklin had fast-tracked his rebuild already before Monday, with a 2015 recruiting class that currently ranks No. 8 nationally, per Rivals.com. The community and the fans and those administrators having athletics integrity meetings undoubtedly will celebrate if the Nittany Lions earn a bowl invite. Then everyone will revel again at the bowl game itself. Very quickly, sooner than anyone expected, things will seem to be back to normal.
Let's just hope no one forgets too easily what came before that.