For all the excitement coach James Franklin brought to Penn State this offseason, nobody expected the Nittany Lions to reach a bowl game in Year One. That had nothing to do with the roster’s ability to win six games or Franklin's ability as a coach. Instead it was simply because of an NCAA-issued postseason penalty that lingered from the infamous Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal, which took place long before Franklin arrived in Happy Valley.
This week the NCAA made a decision that could help the school take another step toward healing. It’s a decision that also benefits student-athletes who had nothing to do with Sandusky’s wrongdoing.
The NCAA announced in a statement Monday that it had decided to eliminate Penn State’s postseason ban, effective immediately. Due to recommendations made by George Mitchell, Penn State’s oversight monitor, the NCAA also decided to return Penn State to its full allotment of athletic scholarships (85) beginning with the 2015 academic year.
Why did the NCAA reverse course on a parts of a controversial punishment handed down more than two years ago? Because Penn State is finally doing things the right way, says the NCAA.
“Penn State’s commitment to the integrity of its athletics department and its progress toward meeting the requirements of the Consent Decree are clear,” said Northern Arizona President Rita Hartung Cheng, the chair of the NCAA’s Executive Committee meeting Monday. “We thank Senator Mitchell for his meticulous and exhaustive work over the past two years. Mitchell’s efforts and the dedication of Penn State officials made today’s decisions possible.”
The NCAA was largely flying blind when it laid the hammer down on Penn State in July 2012. According to conclusions in the Freeh Report, which was commissioned by the Penn State board, school administrators and coaches had conspired to cover up sexual abuse allegations surrounding Sandusky, a longtime Penn State assistant coach. The accusations were monstrous, and there was little in the NCAA’s rule book to deal with such an unthinkable scandal. But through a controversial and expedited process, the NCAA eventually handed down a four-year postseason ban, a $60 million fine, probation, scholarship reductions and a number of vacated wins anyway. It seemingly couldn't punish one school for, say, impermissible phone calls and do nothing to Penn State. Penn State accepted the punishment and waived its right to an appeal through a consent decree signed with the NCAA.
The problem was that the bowl ban and scholarship reductions didn’t affect anyone responsible for Sandusky’s actions. Those sanctions didn’t punish the likes of former Penn State president Graham Spanier, late football coach Joe Paterno, former athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz, whose actions -- or lack thereof -- were at the heart of the scandal. What the NCAA’s decision did was take opportunities away from prospective scholarship athletes at Penn State. These are players who had nothing to do with Sandusky or the school’s administration. The NCAA forced the next Penn State regime -- in this case, Bill O’Brien and his new coaching staff -- into an extremely difficult situation of recruiting fewer kids into a program that couldn't go bowling for four seasons.
Penn State is now two coaches removed from Paterno and the regrettable manner in which his longtime regime ended. Of course, the Sandusky era is not totally forgotten in Happy Valley: Paterno’s vacated wins remain in effect, as do the school’s NCAA probation and fine. But Mitchell did recommend that his oversight end earlier than 2017 if Penn State continues on its current road to recovery.
The most important part of the NCAA’s decision Monday was removing restrictions facing Penn State’s student-athletes.
“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,” Mitchell wrote in his recommendation to the NCAA. “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.
“In light of Penn State’s responsiveness to its obligations and the many improvements it has instituted, I believe these student-athletes should have the opportunity to play in the post-season should they earn it on the field this year. The maximum number of student-athletes ought to be given the chance both to receive a quality education and be active in sports.”
That’s why this was a good decision by the NCAA. Now thanks to some hard work from Franklin -- and O'Brien before him -- Penn State can take more steps towards healing.