NCAA's Mark Emmert overstepped bounds in hammering Penn State

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But the legacy of the Penn State scandal will no longer be Jerry Sandusky's heinous crimes or the courageous victims who stood up to him. Thanks to a brazen power play and a carefully orchestrated p.r. extravaganza, this human tragedy will take a backseat over the next four years (or longer) to a more trivial narrative: Whether Penn State football can recover from crippling NCAA sanctions.

To anyone who has ever contended that the Penn State story was about more than football, take a look at where we've arrived. In the 11 days since the Freeh Report condemned four university leaders for failing to protect the welfare of victimized children, the following corrective measures have occurred: the student section at Nittany Lions homes games was renamed; a statue was removed from Beaver Stadium; and now, the football program will be stripped of its parts, with players forced to find a new school if they ever want to sniff the postseason.

"No price the NCAA can levy will repair the grievous damage inflicted by Jerry Sandusky on his victims," newfound NCAA disciplinary czar Mark Emmert said Monday. "However, we can make clear that the culture, actions and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in collegiate athletics."

And so, for the sins of Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley, the NCAA dropped the hammer on Bill O'Brien, Matt McGloin, Silas Redd and 20 players who won't be able to receive scholarships from Penn State over the next four years (the NCAA stripped the school of 10 scholarships in each of the next four seasons). It assured that the Nittany Lions won't be a contender in the Big Ten for half of a decade -- if not longer -- and that their idol-worshipping fans will no longer cheer for a winner.

Justice has been served, assuming your idea of justice for rape victims is to deprive a school of its next four Outback Bowl invitations.

Emmert made plenty of meaningful and inarguable points in announcing these sanctions Monday. To wit, no one could dispute his message that: "If you find yourself in a place where the athletic culture is taking precedence over academic culture then a variety of bad things can occur."

But while Penn State may be the most extreme and horrific scandal we've seen in terms of its human tragedy and consequences, let's not be naïve. Athletics regularly trump academics at campuses across the country, and NCAA rules are regularly violated because of them. Never before has the NCAA's image-conscious president felt the need to personally intervene. But of course, none of those other scandals made NBC Nightly News for a week.

And so, Emmert made sure his organization responded accordingly -- even if that meant revoking the traditional due process afforded every other school that's ever been punished by the NCAA; invoking a nebulous, generalized bylaw about promoting integrity that could easily apply to hundreds of lawbreaking players, coaches and staffers across the country every year; and creating a precedent for dictatorial-like intervention that must now be considered every time a scandal of any proportion arises in college athletics.

"While there's been much speculation about whether this fits this specific bylaw or that specific bylaw," said Emmert, "it certainly hits the fundamental values of what athletics are supposed to be doing in the context of higher education."

No argument there. Perhaps this truly is a turning point in the history of the NCAA. Perhaps this is the beginning of a new era where Batman Emmert flies in and saves the day every time the forces of athletic evil make a mockery of academic virtues.

He'd better. Otherwise, this will instead prove to be a crowning moment in NCAA hypocrisy.

Remember when most college football fans assumed Auburn and/or Cam Newton would endure some sort of penalty when the quarterback's father openly solicited six figures from Mississippi State? The NCAA couldn't do anything, Emmert insisted, because there was no rule on the books addressing that specific scenario. We'd best not hear that excuse again.

Remember the 2003 murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy by a former player, and head coach Dave Bliss' subsequent attempt to falsely portray Dennehy as a drug dealer to cover up for illegal tuition payments he'd made? Would Emmert (who was not yet with the NCAA at the time) step in if that indisputably heinous case arose today? If not, why? What's the threshold in determining whether something is special-jurisdiction-caliber repulsive or leave-it-to-the-enforcement-department-level disturbing?

And have you read about the ongoing academic fraud scandal at North Carolina? Since at least 1999, athletes have repeatedly been steered toward a specific professor's African and Afro-American Studies course that no one actually taught or attended. Last year's NCAA investigation only scratched the surface. Considering how highly the NCAA portends to value academics, shouldn't Emmert step in here, too?

"We don't see this opening a Pandora's box at all," said Emmert. "This was a very distinct and very unique set of circumstances."

That's easy to say now. Nothing in the history of NCAA scandals has come close to the level of allowing a serial pedophile free reign to a school's football facility, and basic faith in humanity make us inclined to believe that it will never happen again.

But there will undoubtedly be another high-profile college scandal, involving yet another unthinkable scenario, whether it's three months from now or three years from now. And the precedent has now been set. Will Emmert send that program back to the stone ages, too? Or was this a one-time-only, made-for-TV display of power?

Monday's one truly punitive action against one of the figures implicated in the Freeh Report was vacating Penn State's victories from 1998-2011, thus stripping Paterno of 111 wins and demoting him from the sport's alltime leader to 12th place. It seems fair and just, but here again, the NCAA seemingly rewrote its rulebook on the fly. Traditionally victories are vacated when schools are found to have used ineligible players. Nothing of the sort happened here.

But of course, that didn't fit Emmert's message.

"One of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is the sports themselves can become too big to fail and too big to even challenge," he said. "The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by hero worship and winning at all costs."

And so, by waving his magic wand and making Penn State football non-competitive for the next many years, he hopes that all athletic programs will take notice and ensure they don't fall into the same trap.

Here's betting a $3 billion television contract and a $600 million-a-year playoff that he won't deter a darn thing. Instead, Penn State will remain at the front of the news for many years to come, not for the criminal acts of a former assistant coach or its leaders' abhorrent inaction in handling him, but for its football players' inevitable on-field futility.