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Penn State Football: A Near-Death Experience

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Penn State was spared the Death Penalty. But it will be many, many years before the Nittany Lions will field a competitive football team again. Acting with unprecedented speed and eschewing its standard investigative process, the NCAA handed down severe penalties that are sure to cripple this once-proud program for at least the next decade. Of the four major sanctions, only two — the four-year postseason ban and the scholarship reductions (the school must be down from 85 to 65 scholarships by 2014) — will significantly affect the program going forward. The school was also fined $60 million, but that’s hardly punitive to a university with an endowment of close to $2 billion. In addition, the program must vacate all of its wins dating back to the 1998 season. But that’s more symbolic. We can’t change history.

We can, however, alter the future, and that is what the NCAA has done — and rightfully so. Arguably, the NCAA stepped outside of its jurisdiction in this case. After all, Penn State did not break black and white NCAA rules of academic integrity and amateurism. This was a criminal matter. But the NCAA did what the courts could not: Act swiftly to punish Penn State football. It is not enough that the men in charge, the men who allowed Jerry Sandusky to prey on innocent boys, will be dealt with by the legal system. It is not enough that the university’s reputation has been tarnished, maybe forever. No, the football program had to be penalized as well. There needed to be ramifications for allowing one man, head coach Joe Paterno, to become so powerful that the school’s leadership was unwilling to take measures to stop Sandusky for fear of doing harm to the football program.

“In the case of Penn State, the results were perverse and unconscionable,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said at a press conference July 23. “No price the NCAA can levy will repair the grievous damage inflected by Jerry Sandusky on his victims. However, we can make clear that the culture, actions and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in intercollegiate athletics.”

So while I’m a bit uncomfortable with the NCAA’s methods in this case — though there was a clear “lack of institutional control” in NCAA parlance — the end result more than justified the manner in which the penalties were handed down. This was a unique case that called for a unique response.

Penn State must move forward with a depleted roster and little hope for being relevant on the national stage for the foreseeable future. Several players, most notably star tailback Silas Redd, have already transferred, and others can transfer without penalty after the 2012 season.

Some have compared Penn State to USC. Don’t make that mistake. First of all, USC’s penalties — a two-year bowl ban and 10 lost scholarships per year over a three-year period — weren’t as severe. And, more important, USC was not involved in the biggest scandal in the history of college athletics. The school’s brand was not seriously damaged.

That, however, is not the case at Penn State.

Fair or not, it’s impossible to think about the university without thinking about a pedophile violating young boys in the showers of the football office and the ensuing coverup. That alone would be a tremendous hurdle for Bill O’Brien and his coaching staff to overcome on the recruiting trail. Now, add the sanctions to the mix, and Penn State will have the nearly impossible task of attracting talented football players to Happy Valley for the next four years. All of those young men from Aliquippa to Erie to Harrisburg who dreamed of one day putting on a Penn State uniform will have to question their dedication to Nittany Lion football.

So there will be football. No games will be missed — unlike at SMU, which lost two seasons of football. Instead, Penn State fans will watch a team of 60-odd scholarship players (20 fewer than most opponents), and those left likely won’t be the elite players who usually roam Beaver Stadium.

They won’t win many games. And that, to many Penn State fans, could be a fate far worse than the Death Penalty.

---By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)