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By Repealing Penn State Sanctions, the NCAA Destroys Its Valuable Message

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Two years ago, the NCAA took a stand in support of each person's responsibility to each other. Today, they threw it away, for the most craven reason

Jamie Squire

The day was so promising for about five minutes. For a few moments, the NFL and the Ravens had been forced to do what they should have done all along -- Ray Rice was cut and indefinitely suspended from playing in the NFL. It took the release of a revolting video from the night when Rice beat his future wife on an elevator; it took (as it seemingly always does) a pubic relations nightmare. But they finally got it right.

Not long after, the NCAA announced that it was repealing the remainder of Penn State's sanctions for covering up another outrageous violation of human decency. The first business day after the Big Ten's hopes of getting a team into the playoffs took a serious blow, one of its remaining prominent members was cleared to take part in the postseason again -- a coincidence, I am sure.

"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, who chaired Monday’s Executive Committee meeting. "We thank Senator [George] 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."

Progress, apparently, was enough to make sure that Penn State's punishment was no worse than Southern Cal's for a violation of NCAA rules that, whether you agree with those rules or not, are not as basic and fundamental to our moral core as one person's responsibility to another. Because Penn State has not once again engaged in a cold-blooded campaign to cover up the actions of a twisted man who hid in their athletics department, their punishment should be eased.

A good number of voices -- too many -- spoke up on Twitter in support of the decision. The most common refrain was that the punishment was unfair to the players at Penn State, and perhaps even the coaches -- because, after all, what's fair to them is more important than what's fair to the victims needlessly sacrificed to Penn State's pursuit of football glory.

But let's be totally clear about this: None of the players or coaches currently at Penn State were unwillingly or unwittingly punished by this. Not one. Players were allowed to transfer without sitting out a year, and the coaching staff that was in place when the penalties were handed down is gone. James Franklin and crew took over knowing full well that Penn State was facing additional penalties. The idea that poor, innocent players and coaches were punished is sophistry, and bad sophistry at that.

The people who were unwillingly and unwittingly punished by this were the fans and the community that had tolerated the behavior, who had deified Joe Paterno and continued to deify him after it was revealed that he at best sat silently as his superiors hid the actions of a monster and ensured that more children were victimized. The only ones who were punished and had no choice were the fans who rioted when Paterno was fired, the alumni who stood by him, the ignorant and cowed members of the Penn State administration who attacked the university for accepting its punishment.

Those are the individuals who had allowed football to dangerously warp their perspective, who had allowed their love of the game and their love of a coach to outweigh their humanity. And those people -- not the players and not the coaches -- are the ones who had their sentences commuted by the NCAA today. The only way to send the message to the Penn State culture -- the "way of thinking, behaving, or working that exist[ed]" at Penn State, for those who need the word defined -- was to send a lengthy reminder that football is not more important than life, not more important than health, not more important than the well-being of the children victimized by a Penn State employee whose crimes were hidden for far too long.

And that was the message that the NCAA sent with its initial penalties. There was no one else to punish the athletics department, no one else to punish that culture. The NCAA stepped into a vacuum and, for once, did the right thing morally despite the fact that nothing was spelled out in its rulebook. For all those who slammed the NCAA for punishing the minor and the trivial, here was an example of the organization handing out sanctions for the significant and the severe. And instead of praising it, the critics trashed that as well, saying that it was essentially something too important for the NCAA to punish.

They were eventually joined by others, some of whom made bizarre arguments that seemed to have little to do with why the NCAA instituted the penalties and more to do with sympathy for Penn State. Or the players and coaches. Again, all of whom had a choice of whether they wanted to face the punishments that Penn State faced or not. Eventually, the manufactured appearance of a groundswell from sports reporters caused the NCAA to reconsider its course.

As a result, the message that the NCAA sent with the sanctions is now obliterated. The punishment that a program will face for these sorts of actions is no worse than the punishment that it will face for turning a blind eye as a player receives impermissible benefits -- and we all know how effective that punishment has been at deterring those violations.

The motivations of the NCAA in this case are now apparent to everyone. They punished Penn State to get rid of a public relations problem. They revoked the punishment for Penn State to get rid of a public relations problem. They approved the sanctions for Penn State for the same reason that the NFL and the Ravens finally moved against Ray Rice: Not because of moral outrage, but because of bad press. The NCAA never cared about the children victimized in this case, and still doesn't.

All the NCAA cares about is itself. Its leaders should be ashamed, but I doubt they are capable of it.