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July 23, 2012

HURT: PSU denied chance to enact own punishment

NCAA President Mark Emmert began his history-making Monday press conference about the Penn State scandal by noting the paramount importance of the victims of Jerry Sandusky's reign of sexual abuse - and then ignoring them.

First, before addressing any other issue, let's note this fact: The NCAA levied a $60 million fine against Penn State, the equivalent of a year's revenue from the football program. What the NCAA did not do, and what it should do today - not tomorrow, not next week - is issue a statement that it will not collect one single penny of that money until every outstanding claim by victims against Penn State has been settled.

The lawsuits against PSU will be numerous and, given what has already been conceded by Penn State, successful. The potential damages are incalculable, and unless Penn State (or its insurers) is willing to guarantee that it can cover any and all potential liability, the NCAA shouldn't get a dime for the "external programs" it intends to establish (with unspecified administrative fees, of course).

Instead, disturbingly, the NCAA said the payments should not disturb the budgets of nonrevenue sports. Really? What about the claims of the victims, who have first right to that $60 million and a lot more. Because - as Emmert told us - the victims come first.

With that point out of the way, one can consider other implications of what happened Monday. Yes, the NCAA circumvented its normal veneer of due process, but Penn State - not exactly dealing from a position of strength - agreed to waive those rights. So much for this case, which may have called for once-in-a-lifetime measures. Let's hope future NCAA leaders are wise enough to use this one (admittedly heinous) case as the rarest of exceptions and not a working precedent.

Penn State football got hammered, eviscerated past the point of competitiveness by scholarship sanctions. For the most part - not universally, but widely - that has been hailed as a bold, decisive step. America loves punishment, after all, far more than the tougher work of rehabilitation. Whether the punishment actually fits the crime can be debated. Whether it will serve to "change the culture" at Penn State - and whether singling out one school out of 100 that play big-time football, more than a few of which were scanning the Penn State roster for potential transfers that could help their own team actually "change" something - is even more debatable.

Unlike some of the critics of Monday's decision, I do think the NCAA bylaws give the organization jurisdiction in this case. But there is a difference in having jurisdiction and choosing to use those powers in a punitive way.

I don't think the NCAA was required to show discretion and compassion here. I just think everyone in college athletics - Penn State, certainly, but everyone - would have been better served if it had. Why? Because if there was anything to be learned in State College, it's that wins and losses aren't the most important thing. They have a value. I understand why so many of Joe Paterno's wins were vacated.

There was simply no way, given the symbolism that the NCAA was seeking, that Paterno would be allowed to keep the title of "all-time winningest coach." There was never a chance that would have been allowed to happen.

But once again, instead of letting an institution do what an NCAA institution is supposed to do - show institutional control - the organization chose to impose it from without. That isn't change. It is compulsion. It is different rhetoric, but it still the NCAA's "looking down the barrel of a gun" mentality.

Furthermore, rigging the scholarship numbers so a team will lose games - and Penn State will lose a lot of games - doesn't change the culture, either. Penn State lost lots of games and didn't go to many bowls from 2000 to 2004, and it didn't change the culture. If anything, it made matters worse. Now, there is the addition of a scapegoat. How many Penn State fans over the next decade will not say "we brought this on ourselves" but instead say "this is what the NCAA did to us." There will be plenty of them, rest assured.

No one is defending Jerry Sandusky, or the overheated football environment that exists at some schools - most SEC schools, including Alabama - or the official reaction at Penn State. There is a criminal at the heart of this story, and he has been dealt with as a criminal should be. There may be more criminal action to come. But the individuals who will bear most of Monday's burden - players, coaches, fans - weren't criminals. They were decent people, I suspect, and might have come up with a decent response on their own. And it is not about football.

It might have been a glorious moment if Penn State's president and board of trustees had taken measures like those imposed Monday - or done even more, suspending football entirely - but without the push from the NCAA. Perhaps they couldn't do it on their own, but if so, what does that portend for the future at Penn State, regardless of the NCAA?

So the NCAA has chosen to hit Penn State in the ego, and in the wallet. Perhaps there was nothing else it could do. But it might have been better to trust to Penn State's conscience, because that is where real change, meaningful change, and real respect for the victims will have to come from. Could Penn State have done that? Maybe. Maybe not. But now we will never know.


Reach Cecil Hurt at cecil@tidesports.com or 205-722-0225.

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