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Penn State sanctions 'watershed moment' for NCAA

July 23, 2012
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NCAA President Mark Emmert, right, discusses the unprecedented punishments levied again the Penn State football program. (AP photo)

The National Collegiate Athletic Association's swift and severe punishment of Penn State University over a sexual abuse scandal is a bold departure from its normal operating procedure.

The Indianapolis-based organization on Monday vacated 14 years of Penn State football victories and announced a "historically unprecedented" series of sanctions, including a $60 million fine and four-year postseason ban. NCAA executives cited a "conspiracy of silence" that allowed former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky to continue molesting young boys for years, sometimes on university property.

The NCAA fast-tracked penalties rather than go through the usual series of in-house investigations, university responses and hearings.

"It's a watershed moment for the NCAA," Pat Forde, a national sports columnist for Yahoo Sports, said shortly after the announcement. "It's far outside the organization's normal way of doing business."

The question: Does the move send a message about how the governing body of college sports will operate in the future?

Not necessarily, said NCAA President Mark Emmert.

"This is a statement about this case," Emmert said, when asked whether the Penn State penalties would quiet talk of a toothless NCAA. "The facts of this case are utterly unacceptable."

But Ed Ray, the organization's executive committee president, went a step further: "The message is the presidents and chancellors are in charge," he said.

Every college and university needs a "gut check" on the balance between athletics and education, said Ray, who also is president of Oregon State University.

Forde said he initially wasn't a big fan of the NCAA getting involved in the Penn State mess. But after hearing Emmert and Ray explain their decisions, Forde said the "penalties fit the crimes."

He called the mix of punitive and corrective actions both "reasonable" and "bold."

But Richard Sheehan, a business professor at the University of Notre Dame whose areas of study include the economics of sports, said the penalties set a dangerous precedent for NCAA involvement in school-level issues.

He's not sold that the NCAA made its case for intervention.

"My concern isn't with the sanctions per se but with who's pulling the trigger," Sheehan said. "Where do you draw the line where the NCAA has the right and ability to get involved and where it doesn't?"

Sheehan suggested Penn State could have made its own announcement that it had agreed to accept sanctions in an overture toward healing and rebuilding. But he figures the NCAA jumped in quickly for good reason: "We're going to cut off your arm before you have a chance to slap yourself on the wrist," he said.

The sanctions came a day after the school took down the statue of the late Coach Joe Paterno that stood outside Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa., and was a rallying point for the coaches' supporters throughout the scandal.

Emmert earlier had said he had "never seen anything as egregious" as the horrific crimes of Sandusky and the cover-up by Paterno and others at the university, including former Penn State President Graham Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley.

An investigation headed by former FBI Director Louis Freeh and made public July 12 said that Penn State officials kept what they knew from police and other authorities for years, enabling the abuse to go on.

Sandusky was found guilty in June of sexually abusing young boys, sometimes on campus. The Freeh report found that Paterno, who died in January, and several other top officials at Penn State stayed quiet for years about accusations against Sandusky.

Emmert on Monday blamed the silence on a "too big to fail" football culture at Penn State that put winning and "hero worship" ahead of the institution's core values.

He said action by the NCAA was a foregone conclusion; the questions were over details.

The NCAA hit Penn State with $60 million in fines, ordered it out of the postseason for four years, and will cap scholarships at 20 below the normal limit for four years. Other sanctions include five years of probation.

The NCAA said that any current or incoming football players are free to immediately transfer and compete at another school.

"That the NCAA needed to act in this case was never seriously debated," Emmert said in response to a question from ESPN's Rece Davis. "This case strikes at the heart of what intercollegiate athletics are about."

There had been calls across the nation for Penn State to receive the "death penalty," and Emmert had not ruled out that possibility as late as last week — though Penn State did not fit the criteria for sending the football team to the sidelines. That punishment is for teams that commit a major violation while already being sanctioned.

Penn State already has agreed to not fight the sanctions. Emmert said the university and the NCAA have signed a consent decree, essentially a pact signing off on the penalties.

"This case is obviously incredibly unprecedented in every aspect of it, as are these actions that we're taking today," he said.

The Associated Press and Bloomberg News contributed to this story.

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