The NCAA’s sanctions against Penn State are over! News broke on Friday that a settlement had been reached in the lawsuit brought by Pennsylvania State Senator Jake Corman and State Treasurer Rob McCord against both the NCAA and Penn State University. That’s right, Penn State was a co-defendant along with the NCAA in this case, but you wouldn’t know that from most of the media reports about the settlement. But I digress.
The central issue of the lawsuit was not Joe Paterno’s win total (contrary to what many in the public and media believe), but rather the $60 million fine levied by the NCAA against Penn State, and how/where the money should be spent. The NCAA insisted that PSU should pay the fine to the NCAA, and that the NCAA would be in charge of disbursing the money to child abuse prevention organizations nationwide. But Corman and McCord sued the NCAA and Penn State, arguing that Pennsylvania state law (the Endowment Act) required that the money be given exclusively to organizations based in the Commonwealth of Pennsylania, because Penn State receives taxpayer money as a public university. During the various pre-trial phases of the lawsuit, a judge expanded the scope of the trial to include the legality of the “consent decree” that the NCAA forced Penn State to sign in July 2012. This consent decree levied a multitude of harsh sanctions against Penn State, with PSU waiving their right to an infractions investigation conducted by the NCAA. These sanctions included:
- A $60 million fine over 5 years to fund child abuse awareness non-profits nationwide.
- A post-season ban for the 2012-2015 football seasons.
- Football scholarship reductions (reduced from 25/year to 15/year from 2012-2016, with a reduction from 85 total scholarship players to 75 in 2012, 65 in 2013-2015, and 75 in 2016, before returning to the full complement of 85 players in 2017).
- The vacating of all 112 football victories from NCAA record books by Penn State from 1998-2011. This also reduced Joe Paterno’s career victories total from 409 to 298 in official NCAA records.
- Free agency for all Penn State football players until the start of the 2013 season. This meant they would not be required to lose a year of eligibility for transferring to a different school.
Basically, the NCAA intended to make Penn State into a smoking crater. But they did not ultimately succeed, largely because they did not have the legal authority to levy sanctions in this case. After the initial public and media support of the sanctions (in the name of “doing something”), the tide started to shift against the NCAA as more people realized the facts of the case and what was really going on.
In September 2014, after the start of the football season, the NCAA announced that they were lifting some aspects of the sanctions early, including the post-season ban and the scholarship reductions. However, the fine would remain, as would the vacating of all 112 of Penn State’s wins from 1998-2011.
(The sanctions were in response to the awful scandal centering on former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of several boys over many years, and the 2002 report against Sandusky, who retired after the 1998 season, by former assistant coach Mike McQueary, which was subsequently swept under the rug by former Athletic Director Tim Curley, VP of Finance and Chief of University Police Gary Schultz, and former President Graham Spanier. Sandusky is justly rotting in jail for the rest of his life for his evil, despicable crimes. Curley, Schultz, and Spanier are currently still awaiting their trials for felony perjury and misdemeanor failure to report child abuse. I wrote a long blog post back on 10 Nov 2011, a few days after news of the scandal erupted, with more info on the particulars of what transpired, and some of my thoughts on the scandal itself. Rather than rehash all of that here, I encourage you all to read that post.)
Anyway, back to the Corman/McCord lawsuit against the NCAA and Penn State. The judge presiding over the case rejected the NCAA’s motions to dismiss the case, and allowed the case to proceed to the discovery phase. During discovery, a multitude of internal NCAA emails were attached to public court filings which indicated that NCAA administrators felt that they had to “bluff” Penn State into accepting the consent decree, as well as internal disagreement over whether the NCAA even had jurisdiction to enforce sanctions against Penn State in the first place for a criminal matter that did not actually have any bearing on games, student-athletes, or prospective student-athletes. The NCAA was being exposed for the slugs that they are, and it was becoming clear that they were going to lose the Corman/McCord case in court, and that the entire consent decree would be declared illegal.
So then on Friday of last week (16 Jan 2015), a settlement was reached in the case. In the words of State Sen. Corman, “The NCAA has surrendered.” And that seems to be an accurate portrayal of what happened. The settlement, which voids the consent decree signed by PSU and the NCAA in July 2012, was unanimously accepted by the Penn State Board of Trustees and the NCAA Executive Committee on Friday. The settlement requires Penn State to publicly acknowledge the NCAA’s “good faith” interest and concern on the Sandusky scandal (but notably, does not affirm the NCAA’s authority or jurisdiction to issue sanctions in this case), and to enter into a new Athletics Integrity Agreement with the NCAA. In return, the NCAA agreed to the plaintiff’s central request that PSU donate (or pay a fine??) $60 million to a fund managed by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the benefit of child abuse awareness and prevention. By voiding the July 2012 consent decree, the NCAA also restored all 112 wins from 1998-2011 that the NCAA had vacated. This made Joe Paterno once again the winningest coach in college football history, with 409 career wins.
Even though Penn State was a co-defendant with the NCAA in the case, this was a huge victory for Penn State and a huge defeat for the NCAA. The NCAA has now backed off of every single aspect of the sanctions it originally levied in July 2012. The only aspect that remains is the $60 million fine/donation by Penn State, which is actually the only part of the sanctions that I thought was wholly justified in the first place. (In addition to the criminal and civil court actions that have been brought against PSU, and repercussions from the U.S. Department of Education stemming from violations of the Clery Act.) And now that the fine is going to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the money will be able to be disbursed much more effectively, efficiently, and quickly than if it had found its way into the coffers of the corrupt NCAA in Indianapolis. I seriously question how much of the money would have even escaped the clutches of the NCAA if they had been allowed to administer the fine.
So what effect did the sanctions have while they were in place? First, a few players did transfer, but most players did stay, and the sanctions actually had the effect of galvanizing the entire Penn State community. Though the teams in the 2012 and 2013 seasons didn’t win any championships, and went 8-4 and 7-5 respectively, the character, class, loyalty, and honor displayed by those teams made me immensely proud to be a Penn Stater. Inside Beaver Stadium, the 2012 team is deservedly honored right alongside PSU’s undefeated and championship teams in its ring of honor.
Second, the loss of depth created by the scholarship reductions was most severely felt in the 2014 season, which began with a limit of 65 scholarship players. For some games this season, Penn State had only 48-50 healthy scholarship players dressed and able to play, compared to 85 on most other teams. That put them at a severe competitive disadvantage. There weren’t many subs for any position, which wore down the starters over the course of the season, and inexperienced true and redshirt freshmen were thrust into prominent roles before they were ready, which showed on the field with an offense that struggled mightily to move the ball and score. Even so, Penn State managed a 7-6 record after beating Boston College 31-30 in OT in the Pinstripe Bowl.
Third, the vacated wins were a huge point of contention for Penn State fans like myself, who thought it ridiculous that PSU would be stripped of wins as far back as 1998 for several reasons. The biggest reason is that this abhorrent scandal had absolutely nothing to do with any student-athlete or prospective student-athlete, and had no impact on competitive balance on the field. It is utterly meaningless to vacate victories that actually happened (and incidentally, many of which I personally witnessed, including Paterno’s 400th career victory in 2010) in the absence of something that impacts competitive balance on the field. And then it’s also worth recalling that Child Protective Services and the Pennsylvania State Police investigated a complaint against Sandusky in 1998, but the district attorney declined to issue an indictment because of insufficient evidence to secure a conviction. So what exactly was the justification for punishing Penn State for a man’s crimes when the state police and district attorney found insufficient evidence to prosecute, or when there is still no proof that Paterno was aware of the investigation until years later? If the NCAA would have simply vacated wins going back to 2002 when McQueary witnessed one of Sandusky’s evil acts and then two or three former Penn State administrators (Schultz, Curley, and Spanier) proceeded to sweep McQueary’s report under the rug, that would have been somewhat more defensible for the NCAA. However, going back to 1998 showed that they were being purely vindictive, facts be damned.
But now, even with the sanctions having been voided, the Paterno family is (for now, at least) continuing their lawsuit against the NCAA for defamation. It will be interesting to see how that case progresses. All along I have been hoping that the truth, no matter what it is or how many people get implicated with guilt, would come out. Hopefully that case can continue to expose more of the truth of what the NCAA did, and hopefully more of the public will be willing to open their ears and eyes to understand what really happened, and to pin guilt on those who are actually guilty.
And above all, hopefully this terrible scandal that brought shame on my university will help people everywhere be more aware of warning signs of abuse to look for. Child predators like Jerry Sandusky are often quite winsome and charming, and not even their closest associates or next-door neighbors have any idea what’s actually going on. That’s how they are able to continue their predation, because nobody suspects anything. But if anyone has any evidence that suggests that someone might be abusing children, people need to not sweep it under the rug or look the other way, but instead talk to the police. And then we have to trust that the police and the legal system will do their work properly, even though this case is sadly evidence that that does not always happen.