NCAA Sets Strong Precedent With Penn State Sanctions

July 24, 2012

It isn’t being called a death penalty, but the NCAA came about as close as possible without putting a nail in the coffin when it handed down Penn State’s punishment on Monday morning.

The penalties are steep. A four-year bowl ban, a reduction of 15 scholarships during each of those four years, every win since the 1998 season vacated, and the possibility that schools that pick up a Penn State transfer will gain an extra scholarship slot during that season make it one of the harshest punishments handed down since SMU was sentenced in 1987.

Unlike SMU, Penn State is unlikely to be debilitated for two and a half decades. The Big Ten will not disintegrate like the old Southwest Conference did just a few years after SMU’s penalties were handed out, and there will still be regular season football played in Happy Valley for the next four seasons. However, it would be naive to assume Penn State will emerge practically unscathed as USC seemingly has done, fresh off a two-year postseason ban.

In addition to the bowl ban, scholarship reduction and $73 million dollar fine ($60 million by the NCAA, $13 million from the Big Ten), Penn State will be starting over on the sidelines for the first time since 1965. Without Joe Paterno, the program loses a valuable asset in its recruiting pitch.

Simply take a look at the track record of Penn State football over the last two decades. Other than an undefeated season in 1994, in which the Nittany Lions split the national title with Nebraska, the school has had only moderate success by the standards of a “powerhouse” program. In addition, there are four other schools in the Big Ten alone that are equally or more attractive to prized recruits in Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin and Nebraska.

The bottom line: Penn State will suffer as a result of these penalties, and deservedly so.

Say what you will about the NCAA getting involved with a situation it isn’t qualified to act upon, but those arguments don’t hold weight. NCAA president Mark Emmert made the decision to dole out punishments because this was on the most basic level a lack of institutional control by the university. For 14 years the Penn State protected a secret so as not to tamper with the success of the football program. On top of that, the secret that it kept was actually hurting individuals and their families, unlike the impermissible benefits received by the family of Reggie Bush and the tattoos received by former Ohio State players.

The NCAA achieved its goal of getting the attention of the media and fans. The more important question, which remains to be answered, is did it achieve the more important goal of getting the attention of other coaches and administrators across the country. From the way Dr. Emmert spoke on Monday morning, the sanctions were meant to serve as a warning to other schools as much as they were a real attempt to punish Penn State.

“One of the grave damages stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail, indeed too big to even challenge. The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by the value of hero worship and winning at all costs,” Emmert said in his press conference.

Dr. Emmert’s words echo those of many of us that have become fed up with the atmosphere of college sports in general. Most of the time, the penalties issued by the NCAA barely register on the radar of coaches from other schools. The cost of winning is simply too great. If you win, you keep your job and are loved. If you lose, you are fired and detested. Unfortunately, the risk of playing by the rules and losing your job is far greater than cheating and potentially getting caught. Even if you are caught, the opinion of a winning coach is usually positive enough to land him a job somewhere else within a few years.

Maybe the penalties incurred by Penn State can help change this culture. Granted, it will take a significant amount of visible hardship by the program to do so. Players will have to transfer. Recruits will have to change their minds and sign with other schools. Losing records will undoubtedly have to ensue. Sponsorship and other revenue will have to go down the drain. But it is possible.

Hopefully, the penalties are severe enough that Penn State football will be set back at least a decade. You don’t have to abhor Penn State athletics to feel that way, either. USC’s sanctions did nothing to curtail the biggest problem in college football. The Trojans never missed a beat, and in a weird twist of fate, may actually benefit from Penn State’s misfortune if Nittany Lions running back Silas Redd transfers to USC. In order for the punishment to have the desired effect, Penn State football will have to at least come close to joining Indiana as one of the perennial bottom dwellers of the Big Ten for awhile.

Changing a culture such as the money hungry, win at all costs one in college athletics isn’t an easy task. The money hungry part won’t change. However, the NCAA made a genuine attempt to curb the win at all costs part, and for that they deserve credit.

One thing that you can count on despite the attempt to restore honesty in college athletics is that there will be those who will still try to cut corners for an advantage. A word of advice to Dr. Emmert and the NCAA: keep dropping the atomic bombs on the offenders.

– K. Becks

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