The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s tough sanctions against Penn State University over the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal could signal a new and more aggressive approach by the NCAA to punish universities for problems that take place off the field, according to some experts in college sports.
The NCAA on Monday fined Penn State $60 million for failing to stop Sandusky from abusing children and leveled punishments on the university’s football program that could leave it on the sidelines for many years to come. But what the move really showed, some experts said, was a willingness to police universities’ institutional affairs, something the NCAA has been reluctant to do in the past.
While the NCAA stopped short of shutting down one of the country’s most successful college football programs, the university will lose four years of eligibility for postseason play and at least 10 scholarships a year for four years. Current Penn State players will be allowed to transfer to other schools without penalty.
Citing “an athletic culture that went horribly awry,” the NCAA also removed all 112 of Penn State football’s wins going back to 1998, stripping the late Joe Paterno of his status as the winningest coach in college football history.
“We feel confident that we’re doing the right thing, but nobody feels good about it,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said. He also said more sanctions might be coming at the end of all criminal proceedings in the case.
In the small town of State College, Pa., known to Nittany Lions fans as “Happy Valley,” Penn State students and alumni already had been reacting to the removal Sunday of a statue of Paterno from outside the football stadium.
As the NCAA prepared to make its announcement early Monday, the school’s football players met privately with team coaches. Students gathered around wide-screen televisions, then gasped when the sanctions were revealed.
“It’s devastating,” said freshman Gabby Collo, of nearby Bellefonte. The football players “are getting penalized for something that happened when they were 5 and 6 years old.”
“The Pennsylvania State University has been permanently damaged,” State College resident Robert Merrell said.
Courtney Lennartz, the president of the undergraduate student government, said she thought the NCAA was overstepping its jurisdiction. She said that only one penalty – the $60 million fine – would benefit victims.
"A lot of the other penalties are hurting the wrong people here,” Lennartz said.
In a sign of the university’s importance to State College, local business leaders planned to meet Tuesday and again later this week to talk about the sanctions’ potential economic impact on the community.
The Paterno family said the sanctions “defame the legacy and contributions of a great coach and educator.”
“This is not a fair or thoughtful action; it is a panicked response,” the family said in a statement.
Ed Ray, the NCAA’s executive committee chairman, said the measures “should serve as a stark wakeup call to everyone in college sports.”
A series of scandals has called into question the outsize influence of athletic programs at universities, nowhere more so than at Penn State.
Sandusky, who was one of Paterno’s top assistants, was convicted last month on 45 counts of child sex abuse and is awaiting sentencing. Former Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and former Senior Vice President Gary Schultz face trial on charges of perjury and failure to protect children. Former university President Graham Spanier also could face charges.
“I think other schools will definitely take notice of what occurred at Penn State, and will be examining their own athletic operations with much more scrutiny,” Donald Heller, a former Penn State education professor who’s the dean of the school of education at Michigan State University, said in an interview. “The NCAA’s actions open up a new door on how they can sanction schools outside of their normal investigation, enforcement and sanctioning procedures.”
The announcement Monday from NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis came less than two weeks after a blistering report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh that found that Paterno and three other top Penn State officials had known for years that Sandusky was molesting boys at a campus football facility but that they’d concealed the abuse from the university and the public.
Emmert said the university had signed a consent decree and wouldn’t challenge the penalties. Penn State President Rodney Erickson said he’d accepted the NCAA’s punishment for the football program to avoid the ultimate one: the “death penalty.” That would have shuttered the football program entirely for a year or more.
“We had our backs to the wall on this,” Erickson told the Centre Daily Times of State College. “We did what we thought was necessary to save the program.”
John Thelin, a professor of education at the University of Kentucky who’s written books and articles on the history of college sports and college sports scandals, said Penn State would have faced the cancellation of one or more football seasons if it didn’t agree to the sanctions.
“It’s virtually impossible for Penn State to respond any other way than to go along,” he said.
Penn State head football coach Bill O’Brien said he was “committed for the long term” to helping the Nittany Lions comply and rebuild. O’Brien came to Penn State in January from the NFL’s New England Patriots.
“I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead,” O’Brien said in a statement.
On Sunday, the university removed a bronze statue of Paterno from the 107,000-seat football stadium, angering Paterno’s most ardent defenders, who include students, alumni, former players and his family. Erickson decided the late coach’s name would remain on a university library that he’d donated millions of dollars to build.
In addition to the NCAA fine, Penn State might have to pay tens of millions of dollars in civil damages to the eight victims who testified against Sandusky, and others who may yet come forward. Last week, another three men said that Sandusky, who’s now 68, had abused them in the 1970s.
“We’ve kept foremost in our thoughts the tragic damage that has been done to the victims and their families,” Emmert said.
Money from the $60 million sanction – equivalent to the average gross annual revenue of the football program – must be paid into an endowment for external programs that prevent child sexual abuse or assist victims, and may not be used to fund such programs at the university.
The Big Ten Conference also took action against Penn State on Monday, placing it on probation for five years. Because it cannot participate in bowl games, the university stands to lose $13 million in bowl revenue from the conference.
The sanctions represent the first major NCAA penalty levied against the football program that Paterno led for 46 years.
In a letter to players before his death in January, Paterno said the Sandusky scandal wasn’t about football, and even some Paterno critics said punishments were for the criminal justice system to make, not the NCAA. But the NCAA concluded otherwise.
“If you think you’re exempt from any mistakes, you’re probably wrong,” Thelin said.
(Chip Minemyer, Matt Carroll, Jessica Vanderkolk, Chris Rosenblum and Anne Danahy of the Centre Daily Times contributed to this article from State College, Pa.)