The NCAA is backtracking on its Penn State penalty. Citing vague notions about reestablishing integrity, the NCAA has reduced the sanctions on the university’s football program. The Nittany Lions will be able to recruit 20 scholarship players by 2014-15, the full 25 by 2015-16 and carry a full 85-man roster by 2016-17. The $60 million fine remains in place, though the NCAA said it may revisit the postseason ban as well.
Obviously, lightening the sanctions is enormous for Penn State football’s future. But, this is more significant for the NCAA. The Penn State penalty was Mark Emmert’s pièce de résistance. Backtracking does not bode well for him or his brand of college football government.
Punishing Penn State was pure Emmert. He wanted the NCAA to be proactive, relevant and tackle the troubles plaguing major college athletics. He stormed into State College at the College Presidents’ behest. He strong-armed Penn State into Draconian sanctions. He did so without conducting an investigation and with only a fanciful spirit of bylaws to justify it. This was bold, aggressive and, as the NCAA is now acknowledging a little over a year later, foolish.
The NCAA enforces sports rules. What happened with Jerry Sandusky at Penn State was only tangentially a sports issue. It was beyond the NCAA’s purview. Acting in the case trivialized a horrific crime. How does one quantify protecting a child rapist in scholarships, bowl bans and vacated games? The NCAA now claims Penn State has shown progress that justifies softening the sanctions. Progress at what? Not harboring child molesters? As with the decision to impose the sanctions, the NCAA is just making stuff up.
Perhaps the NCAA had to act. If it did, the actions were ineffectual. Emmert wanted to eradicate Penn State’s warped football culture (where is there a sober, rational one?). The only way to do that was to either suspend or terminate the program. The sanctions did neither. Instead of putting football in perspective for Penn State, they just made Penn State worse at football. The team and fan base felt victimized. The sanctions diverted attention from the horrors of the Sandusky case to the football program.
Penn State was only the most prominent example of the organization’s consistent bumbling under Emmert. His attempts at serious student-athlete reform were scuttled by small schools. His NCAA had to investigate itself for misconduct during the Miami investigation. It then decided it still had enough standing to pursue charges against Miami and not let the Hurricanes off with time served and a nominal scholarship reduction.
We would say Emmert has done a poor job at the NCAA, but that would imply this was a job someone could do well. With investigations revealing how much money is being siphoned and how much of their long-term health players are risking without compensation or health coverage, there has been a public sea change about NCAA amateurism. The model is now perceived as flawed, failing and entirely ill-suited to the professional reality of major college sports.
Emmert resembles the last colonial governor. His choices were to shore up a crumbling edifice through concerted action, and be criticized, or watch impotently as the edifice crumbled, and be criticized. Penn State was his Suez crisis. It was a last grasp for traditional college athletic authority. It failed.
This iteration of the NCAA will be dead by winter. A rump form under the same name may have some nominal control. But by next college football season, the big programs will have their own subdivision and far more autonomy. This will include the “across the board” scholarship stipend for student-athletes desired by all parties. That substantial reform should be a mere baseline for probable amateurism reforms resulting from a settlement of the O’Bannon case.
Mark Emmert was already embattled. Now he just seems like a placeholder, waiting to solemnly lower the flag.
[Photo via Getty]