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The NCAA Had to Hammer Penn State

Sources told a number of media outlets yesterday that the NCAA planned to give Penn State a penalty worse than death this morning, and here are the details:

  • Penn State is fined $60 million (one year's football gross revenue) to create an endowment for supporting child abuse charities. It will be paid over five years.
  • The football program gets a four-year postseason ban.
  • Penn State loses 10 initial scholarships (can only sign 15 a year) and 20 total scholarships (roster is capped at 65 scholarship players) for four years.
  • All Penn State football players there or incoming can transfer without penalty.
  • All wins from 1998-2011 are vacated.
  • The school goes on probation for five years.
  • The NCAA reserves the right to open a formal investigation regarding school officials once the legal process is done.
  • PSU must implement changes recommended by the Freeh Report, must have a new Athletics Integrity Monitor, and will have to do quarterly reports for five years to the NCAA and Big Ten to prove that football is not bigger than the university.

Nothing about this will do anything for the victims of Jerry Sandusky, but this phase of the proceedings is not about doing something for them. The criminal justice system put Sandusky behind bars, and the civil litigation process will determine compensation amounts for them. That's half of the puzzle here. The other half is working towards ensuring that something like this doesn't happen again, and that's where this heavy-penalties-as-deterrent phase enters in.

I think that much is fairly uncontroversial, but the question of whether the NCAA should be handing out some of that punishment certainly is contentious.

The organization's reputation for giving out uneven and inconsistent penalties based on the bylaws in its books certainly plays into that dispute. If the NCAA had a history of delivering just punishments in everyone's eyes, then I think fewer people would be questioning today's move. The fact that normal operating procedures didn't take place and Mark Emmert was given unprecedented disciplinary power only adds to it. (UPDATE: If Penn State wasn't willing to play along, Emmert wouldn't have had this power).

The NCAA had to drop the hammer on Penn State, though, based on the two main parts of its mission.

One key role for the NCAA is to make sure the playing field is relatively level. We can argue some other time about how well it fulfills that role, but preventing programs from getting an unfair competitive advantage is a core part of its mission. It feels tacky to even talk about this dimension in light of the nature of the scandal, but it is part of the NCAA's raison d'être. Did Penn State get a competitive advantage due to the cover up? According to the chairman of the NCAA Executive Committee Ed Ray, yes it did:

"Penn State did a hell of a lot of recruiting between 1998 and 2012 of very top football athletes, played in bowl games, had great records during some of those years," he said. "I don’t know if a lot of that would have been possible if the truth had come out over the last 14 years."

It also made a lot of money, some of which it might not have made had the truth about the cover up come out sooner. That went towards building some competitive advantages in terms of paying for coach salaries, fueling the recruiting budget, and upgrading facilities.

The other big role for the NCAA relates to its twin fig leaves of academics and amateurism. Players are supposed to be students before athletes, and sports are supposed to serve the university. Again, we can argue about how close to reality those statements currently are some other time, but they're why players don't draw salaries, the taxation on college sports isn't drastically higher, and why the NCAA even exists at all.

The descriptions in the Freeh Report paint a picture showing the model of sports serving the school having been turned on its head. The football program had grown bigger than the university in the estimations of those in charge, with implicit or explicit consent for endangering the university, not to mention the children, to preserve appearances for the football program starting at the board of trustees level and going all the way down. The evidence also suggests that Joe Paterno never really took orders from anyone.

That reality, if accurate, cuts to the core of the entire collegiate athletics model as we know it. The members of the NCAA board of directors gave Emmert the authority to act, and they represent all of the organization's member schools. They had to make it known that a situation like the one in State College is unacceptable because its existence undermined the whole system. The nuking of Penn State sends a message to all of those inside and outside the association that the system must be preserved.

Those factors are what makes this case different from any other kind of criminal activity at a school. Even the criminal activity related to the awful scandal with Baylor basketball (over and above the NCAA violations that did occur) a few years back doesn't qualify because the school didn't gain a competitive advantage from it or demonstrate complicity from levels of leadership above the coaching staff.

The Penn State football program specifically had to be humbled after growing far larger in influence than it ever should have grown. The body that governs its activities is a legitimate candidate for doing that humbling. I think a lot of people would have liked to see big changes come from Penn State alone without the NCAA stepping in, but the fact the school agreed to the facts and consented to the NCAA's sanctions on this shows that the current leadership knew something had to be done.

There are a few lingering questions that I'm sure critics will ask. What if, as former PSU president Graham Spanier and some others have contended, the Freeh Report has some inaccuracies? Why do the current players and coaches have to bear the brunt of the penalties? Why must Penn State's fellow Big Ten schools have to suffer inevitable collateral damage?

Ultimately, the gravity of the situation—that several levels of leaders at a university systematically covered up the actions of a now-convicted predatory pedophile that they allowed to roam the premises for 13 years in order to preserve the image of the football program—overwhelms all of it. Unless the Freeh Report is somehow wildly inaccurate, and risk for the NCAA over that is blunted by PSU's official acceptance of the facts and penalties here, this is the right move. If hammers don't get dropped over something like this by anyone who might have jurisdiction, it sends a far worse message than the alternative.