That was the word that was used to describe the penalties that the NCAA would be imposing on Penn State in the wake of the Sandusky scandal and cover-up. No one knew for sure what that would mean, but that didn’t stop the speculation.
One of the more frequently suggested potential punishments was the “death penalty”, the nickname given to an NCAA ban on an athletic program playing any games. The ban has been imposed few times in history and only once on a football program (famously, the Southern Methodist University team which went from a powerhouse before the ban to a team that is even now climbing out of irrelevance caused by the penalties). While this is option may have sounded good to those out for vengeance, it was never truly realistic. College football is an even bigger business now than it was when SMU received its ban, and the NCAA has seen just how massive the fallout from such a penalty would be. Banning the program from playing would not only penalize Penn State University, but also every team that has them on their schedule. Other universities would stand to lose millions of dollars for something that was the fault of another institution.
On the other end of the spectrum, were those who believed that the NCAA was overstepping its bounds. This was a criminal matter, an ethical matter, not a football issue. Make no mistake about it, had this story broken in 1998, Penn State would have taken a hit in this scandal, but had they acted swiftly to bring the matter to the attention of the authorities, there does not seem to be anything that the NCAA or anyone else could have held them responsible for. (In fact, based on what we know now, they could have made the lives of many children much better.) The NCAA comes down hard on teams that violate the rules, but the ultimate sin is the cover-up. Lack of institutional control is almost always cited when you look at teams who were hit with severe punishments. But when you look at the ones who lied and tried to hide what they knew was wrong, those punishments get even worse. Penn State had a chance to report this. Instead there was an active cover-up that continued for almost 15 years. A cover-up that continued up through this investigation when they still lied about knowing that there was an incident in 1998 rather than just 2001.
So, what did unprecedented mean? The NCAA announced this morning that Penn State would be fined $60 million which would go into an endowment for preventing child abuse (but not programs at the university). The 60 million is an estimate of the revenue for one year of the football program. This means that the NCAA did not impose the so-called death penalty, but in essence still prevented the university from making any money off the team for a year. A similar punishment, but hopefully one without the unintended ripple effects. In addition, the university will lose scholarships and will be unable to participate in the postseason for 4 years. The 4 year figure is important, because any players whose eligibility is equal to or less than the length of a postseason ban are free to transfer to another school without the usual loss of one year of eligibility. This basically set every athlete on the Penn State football team free to join another school without having to sit out. Will this cause a mass exodus? I don’t know, but it will be interesting to see. The truly unprecedented part was the vacated wins. The NCAA clearly felt that from the time of the first known yet unreported incident through now, the university was exploiting an unfair advantage by covering up a major issue for no reason other than the benefit of their athletic department. The university will vacate every win from 1998 on. Some of these teams won conference championships. Some of these teams won bowl games. Not anymore. Joe Paterno’s legacy was that he was the winningest coach in history with 409 wins. These penalties remove 111 of those wins. With one press conference, the NCAA has rewritten the record book, moving Bobby Bowden to the top of the list and placing Joe Paterno outside of the top 10 in all-time wins.
Remarkably, since I started writing this, the university has issued a statement which seems to say that they won’t contest any of these penalties.
Not a single one of these penalties will undo anything that Jerry Sandusky has done. However, I truly hope that the precedent that was set here will remind every other university official, coach, player, fan or anything else that no matter how much you love this game, no matter how much money a program makes, it is nothing when compared to the lives of other people. The decisions made by Penn State officials were appalling, but I don’t know how different they would have been anywhere else where rather than praising the people who play and coach the sport, we deify them.