Big Blue Nation Can Relate to Saddened Penn State Fans
SANCTIONS METED OUT BY NCAA SHOULD AVOID EXCESSIVELY PENALIZING CURRENT ATHLETES
Penn State fans are reeling from the news that their beloved football program is in ruins. It could be a decade before it even approaches respectability again. There are two fan bases that can relate, and they both got drilled in the 1980s: SMU and Kentucky.
Southern Methodist is still the only program ever dealt the death penalty by the NCAA. Its highly successful, and profitable, football team was put to sleep in 1987. Some believed Penn State might take its place in that dubious distinction; even more thought that penalty just. UK avoided a total shutdown in 1989 by cooperating with investigators, and still had to deal with harsh sanctions.
When Rick Pitino took over with just a handful of remaining players, some predicted a return to respectability MAYBE by the fifth year of his seven-year contract.
We all know how quickly Pitino not only turned things around in Lexington, but re-established Kentucky as one of the elite programs in college basketball.
There won’t be any quick, magical comeback in State College, Pa. The NCAA saw to that.
That’s because more than basketball, football is a game of numbers. And the numbers involved in the sanctions were staggering – $60 million in penalties, earmarked immediately for victims of molestation. The Big 10 pledged another $15 million, bringing the total to $75 million.
A massive fine had been predicted in this precedent-setting case, but not many forecast what would come next: A four-year bowl ban and scholarship sanctions harsh enough to render Penn State a 1-AA football program by the time Nittany Lion freshmen (whichever ones remain) graduate.
Still another surprising number: 112, the number of PSU football victories that have been vacated, stretching back to 1998, the year the cover-up began. Athletes from various walks of college sports have weighed in via social media, denouncing the NCAA for “taking away” victories from innocent players.
Let’s be honest. The only person this directly affects is Joe Paterno, and he’s gone. So is his legacy as the game’s winningest Division I coach.
Any athlete who played for Penn State will always have the memories of those victories, the boisterous locker rooms, the happy plane rides home. Nobody’s going to be asked to return any bowl game rings or watches. But they won’t be seeing any new baubles in Happy Valley any time soon.
The NCAA also slugged PSU fans in the gut with massive scholarship sanctions and a four-year bowl ban and that, it says here, is where it went too far.
Those of us who follow Kentucky football, fans and media alike, saw firsthand what NCAA-imposed sanctions can do to a program when UK felt the sting of penalties in 2002. Kentucky was given a one-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions that totaled 19 by the end of the three years of probation.
Wildcat football was struggling at the time, with back-to-back 2-9 seasons. Nobody expected the bowl ban to have much of an impact, but it did, when the 2002 team unexpectedly finished 7-5 under Guy Morriss. A year full of surprises (the LSU loss notwithstanding) ended short of the post season.
Rich Brooks had to compete in the Southeastern Conference with teams decimated by scholarship reductions. It’s remarkable that Brooks was able to survive, much less take Kentucky to a bowl game in 2006, something the 2002 squad never got to experience.
Penn State fans will have to deal with that for four years, knowing that – no matter how many games the Nittany Lions might win – there will be no bowl trip.
Indeed, scholarships should have been taken away, and bowl trips denied. The sanctions should have been stiff enough to remind that winning is not the salve that heals all wounds and excuses any action. But they were too harsh.
And this is where I take up for the current players.
Not one of them bears any responsibility for what happened there. And I realize that the scholarship reductions will make their lives difficult as well. This will not be your father’s Penn State team – heck, your grandfather’s PSU, at that – for quite some time. Maybe never again.
Whenever the NCAA hands down penalties, inevitably they affect innocent bystanders. And the same media pundits who demand action begin howling when it arrives. (“I said, ‘DO SOMETHING.’ But not THIS!”)
Coaches can be fired, offending players sent packing. The question is, how else do you penalize program itself? By removing it from its throne, which usually is gilded by corner-cutting recruiters and self-absorbed boosters with too much money and an unhealthy addiction to a college sports team.
But that wasn’t the case at Penn State. There were no under-the-table payoffs to high school players and coaches, no “extra benefits” to athletes already on campus. Nobody’s driving a Corvette who clearly can’t afford it.
This was a criminal conspiracy, and the alleged guilty parties will forever bear the stigma of destroying one of the grandest traditions in all of college football. If there’s justice, they’ll have to mull that while sitting in prison cells. Their names, inexplicably, never came up during NCAA president Mark Emmert’s remarks Monday.
Joe Pa is gone, but for years – maybe forever – his name will be linked both to football and, sadly, child molestation.
That should be penalty enough.
But the NCAA has ruled that it’s not, that the football-is-king atmosphere that led the conspirators to cover up Jerry Sandusky’s crimes is culpable as well.
And perhaps it is. That said, Penn State’s players should be liberated.
Current players should be allowed to transfer immediately, without penalty of a redshirt year. Recruits should be released from their letters of commitment.
The presidents, chancellors and administrators who comprise the various committees that oversee the sport should show mercy to the student-athletes. The players are innocent pawns who might better have benefitted if Penn State had, indeed, received the death penalty.
If the ultimate hammer had fallen, they would have had to forfeit the joy of spending their autumn Saturdays playing at the foot of the majestic Nittany Mountains, wearing the simple helmets, black shoes and navy jerseys the Nittany Lions have made famous.
But they would be allowed to play college football somewhere free of the shackles they had no part in forging. Instead, if they remain in State College, they’ll play simply for the joy of the game. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But it should have been so much more.
It’s not a tragedy. That’s a word that should be reserved for Sandusky’s victims. But it is sad. And that word can’t be used enough.