The NCAA announced Tuesday that it was substantially reducing the unprecedented punishment of Penn State’s football program that it handed down after the Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal last July, restoring scholarships it took away as part of the punishment over the next three years. The NCAA left Penn State’s four-season bowl ban in place, but it is widely expected that the organization will walk back that punishment as soon as next year.
The announcement was an admission that NCAA president Mark Emmert overstepped his bounds in punishing Penn State by sidestepping its own enforcement and infractions processes. Even worse, in hailing the university’s “continued progress” and “commitment to improvement,” the NCAA is again missing the point, just as it did when it handed down the punishment 14 months ago. That progress, the NCAA said, showed up in a report from former Sen. George Mitchell, an NCAA-appointed monitor of Penn State reforms who issued a report on September 6 showing that the university has completed initial implementation of recommendations that were part of the Freeh Report that detailed the scandal last year. Penn State, Mitchell found, has implemented 115 of the 119 recommendations the Freeh Report made.
That may be progress on Penn State’s part, but whither the progress for the NCAA? The changes it celebrates at Penn State likely would have happened without it, given that it was Penn State that commissioned the Freeh Report after the scandal and that it was Penn State that willingly dismissed every official connected to the scandal, from president Graham Spanier to legendary coach Joe Paterno. It was Penn State that installed a new administration and Penn State that was facing civil liabilities, interest from the Department of Education, and massive public outcry, not to mention a stench of shame that has enveloped the university for more than a year. Penn State, sure enough, has at least started demonstrating a willingness to change.
It’s the NCAA that hasn’t.
The Freeh Report found that one of Penn State’s biggest problems was “the culture of reverence for the football program that is ingrained at all levels of the campus community.” But the NCAA wasn’t going to fix that, because the punishment of Penn State was never about fixing that; rather, it happened because the NCAA couldn’t stand the thought of doing nothing in the wake of the dirtiest scandal in its history. The NCAA couldn’t have fixed it, either, because it’s as much a part of the culture that promulgates a football-first attitude as Penn State has ever been.
The necessary rehabilitation to Penn State culture was never dependent on the NCAA or its punishments, but to make it seem like it was doing something, the NCAA injected itself into Penn State’s own process anyway. That left it with no choice but to adapt to Penn State’s own efforts to improve by walking back those punishments now. Doing something that would have truly mattered would have meant evaluating its own place in the culture that enabled scandal, not just at Penn State but in other athletic programs too. But the NCAA wasn’t ever going to do that, so after throwing out the books to punish Penn State, Emmert and Co. have thrown them out again to change the rules midstream.
This was never a job for the NCAA, and the real markers of progress in State College won’t come from harsh NCAA punishments or the easing of those punishments a year later. It will come from years of deep commitment to change every bit of a culture that allowed the most unspeakable scandal in NCAA history, and the NCAA isn’t an arbiter of that culture as much as it is a part of it. That’s just as true today as it was 14 months ago.