Penn State’s unprecedented sanctions have met an unprecedented development.
The NCAA announced Tuesday that it would begin to reduce the sanctions it imposed on the university by gradually restoring the scholarships it stripped from the football program in July 2012.
Citing “fantastic compliance” to an agreement to reform the school in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal, former Sen. George Mitchell recommended leniency to the NCAA. The organization agreed.
“Penn State has consistently demonstrated a strong commitment to fulfilling the Athletics Integrity Agreement,” said Mitchell, who was assigned to oversee Penn State’s efforts. “The recommendation was based on my belief that Penn State has made a serious good-faith effort to embrace the changes needed.
“This wasn’t based on any feeling that the sanctions imposed were inappropriate or unduly harsh. Rather, Penn State made a serious effort to embrace and adopt the changes needed to enhance its future.”
Mitchell said the university has “substantially completed” more than 120 tasks outlined by the AIA, including hiring a chief compliance officer and better educating all employees on child abuse prevention.
Some penalties remain
Though the NCAA did not alter other aspects of the sanctions — a postseason ban, a $60 million fine and wins stripped from the team and former coach Joe Paterno — it left the door open that future compliance could reduce those penalties as well.
The NCAA said “additional mitigation may be considered in the future depending upon Penn State’s continued progress.”
There is no timeline for those decisions.
“It would be inappropriate to speculate on hypotheticals,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said.
For now, though, Penn State football and prospective student-athletes will benefit immediately from additional scholarships being made available.
“I am pleased that the NCAA is recognizing the important changes and reforms that the university has undertaken and will continue to make moving forward,” Gov. Tom Corbett said in a statement.
“We are also encouraged that the NCAA shares our view that the primary purpose of athletic scholarships is to provide an educational opportunity for student athletes.”
To that end, Penn State will be able to sign a maximum of 20 players (up from 15) in its upcoming 2014 recruiting class before returning to the normal annual limit of 25 for the 2015 class.
Concurrently, Penn State will be able to field a 75-scholarship team (up from 65) in the 2014 season. That overall scholarship number will increase to 80 for 2015 and be back to the normal 85 for the 2016 campaign.
“We have to keep doing what we’re doing, which is working extremely hard to do what’s right,” Penn State head coach Bill O’Brien said. “When the rules changed a little bit, we adapted to those rules. The rules now are we can sign a few more guys and can get back to 85 scholarships a little bit sooner.
“We can’t go to a bowl or compete for a championship, but we definitely can get more on an even playing field numbers-wise, and that’s what we’re concentrating on as a staff.”
It marks the start of a stunning reversal for the Nittany Lions, who were being discussed last summer as a candidate for the so-called NCAA “death penalty” — complete suspension of the program for one season or more.
“It’s important to remember this case has been handled in an extraordinary manner because of the extraordinary circumstances of the situation,” Emmert said.
That process began in June 2012 with the release of the university-commissioned Freeh Report, which concluded that Penn State administrators sought to cover up allegations against former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who was ultimately convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse of children.
In July 2012, the NCAA’s executive committee, comprised of university presidents from around the country, granted Emmert unique authority to sidestep the traditional enforcement process and impose the sanctions directly. Emmert said the Freeh Report served as a stand-in for the work that would normally be done by NCAA investigators.
The Freeh Report, overseen by former FBI director Louis Freeh, has been the subject of intense debate ever since, with many critics arguing that its findings weren’t supported well enough.
“Over the last 14 months it has become clear to open-minded people that the Freeh Report is deeply flawed and the actions by the NCAA were precipitous and unjust,” the Paterno family said in a statement on Tuesday. “This action begins to correct the mistakes of the (Penn State) board of trustees, Mr. Freeh and the NCAA.”
The Paterno family remains involved in a lawsuit against the NCAA, seeking to repeal the sanctions entirely, as well as restore the 111 wins that were stripped from Joe Paterno, who died in January 2012.
Penn State culture
That lawsuit takes particular aim at Emmert, who made repeated references to problems with Penn State’s culture when initially announcing the sanctions.
On Tuesday, Emmert was asked if he saw a culture change in the past year.
“I’ll refer to Sen. Mitchell for his observations about what has and hasn’t changed in the university over the past year,” Emmert said.
“Certainly the interest in seeing change behaviorally at the university was central to what the Athletics Integrity Agreement was about. And that Penn State’s fulfillment of nearly all of those requirements at this very early date has been a very strong indicator of the seriousness with which they’ve taken this mission.”
Mitchell chimed in, as Emmert requested.
“Penn State has undertaken a major effort on the issue of culture,” Mitchell said. “This process is not in any way complete. … So far they’ve been very active, thoughtful and taken meaningful action.”