Penn State University used to be a football school. Now it's a school that plays football.
The NCAA put the word “unprecedented” to, well, unprecedented use Monday when it inflicted a life-altering wound on the Penn State football program. The apparent decision of the late coach Joe Paterno and other school officials to cover up the child sexual abuse crimes of former coach Jerry Sandusky has resulted in the harshest penalty in NCAA history.
Penn State was fined $60 million, banned from bowl games for four years, has had scholarship numbers reduced for four years and must vacate all wins from 1998 to 2011.
The result will be to turn Penn State football into Indiana football, minus the reputation of class and character.
And the next-worst-thing to a death penalty has a new home: Unhappy Valley.
Penn State will keep playing football, using players who remain with the school (all are free to transfer and play immediately at other schools, per the NCAA ruling) and eventually new players willing to play for pride and no chance at a postgame berth. It's a walking dead program.
The speed with which the NCAA acted – or, rather, NCAA president (czar?) Mark Emmert acted – was stunning. But Penn State, shamed by this heinous crime and its enablers, agreed to the terms. The school will not appeal, protest or otherwise do anything but live with guilt and punishment.
My initial feeling was that the NCAA overstepped its authority, punishing the innocent current players and coaches and operating outside its role as a rules enforcing body.
The idea that the NCAA needs to change the “culture” at Penn State and lessen the football program's power seems commendable on the surface. But NCAA schools have allowed football programs to run things for years. So that crusade seems a little tardy. And I still feel this is a criminal matter that happened to take place in a sports environment.
But Penn State agreed to the punishment, making it essentially a self-imposed penalty.
So I've lightened a bit on the NCAA's actions over the last 24 hours, in large part because it's awfully hard to take an opposing view and not feel queasy. Sandusky's crimes were abominable, as was the inaction of Paterno, former university president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz. There is not enough punishment for these cowards.
The NCAA is setting a dangerous precedent, to use its new favorite word, in trying to police areas other than athletic competition. But Penn State's football leaders were guilty of covering up a crime to save their reputation, so it does fall somewhat broadly in the NCAA's path.
I like the fine, which is roughly a year's revenue from football, because it will be used as an endowment to support programs to help child sexual abuse. I like erasing Paterno's coaching wins during the stained period, ending his reign as college football's winningest coach.
The bowl ban and the scholarship reductions seem like piling on, and do little to advance the cause of “culture change” or to help Sandusky's victims. It ensures Penn State won't be a Big Ten factor for 10 or 12 years, probably. While it's nice the NCAA will allow current players to transfer immediately, that's easier said than done with football practice all but upon us.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien says he plans to remain as coach, despite the sanctions that will put him on a playing field tilted at least 90 degrees in favor of other Big Ten schools. The players O'Brien will eventually recruit will likely be players who wouldn't otherwise be considered Big Ten caliber.
I don't see how O'Brien can walk into a home and recruit without the specter of Sandusky and sanctions handicapping him at every stop.
The death penalty used to be defined by shutting down a program for a year, as happened in the infamous case of Southern Methodist University.
Penn State just felt the sting of the new death penalty, where a school keeps playing football, but without the players it takes to win.
Maybe that's the lasting lesson for Penn State in this entire ordeal: Everyone loses.