NCAA begins to restore Penn State football scholarships

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien will get five scholarships back next season. "We're happy right now for our players," he said.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien will get five scholarships back next season. "We're happy right now for our players," he said. (GENE J. PUSKAR / Associated Press)
Posted: September 26, 2013

Tuesday's surprise rollback of one of the major provisions of Penn State's Jerry Sandusky-related penalties refocused attention on two damaged collegiate sports institutions - Nittany Lions football and the NCAA.

Acting on a recommendation by former Sen. George Mitchell (D., Maine), the NCAA announced that it would begin to restore the scholarships it stripped from Penn State in July 2012 after the university's internal investigation into its role in the sordid Sandusky sex scandal.

While the other unprecedented sanctions imposed on Penn State at the time - a postseason ban, a record $60 million fine, and the removal of 111 victories from legendary coach Joe Paterno's record - weren't impacted, NCAA president Mark Emmert suggested they, too, could be lessened if the school "continued progress toward ensuring athletics integrity."

The decision by the NCAA's executive committee, Emmert said, was based on findings by Mitchell, who has been acting as the university's NCAA-appointed Athletics Integrity Monitor, and not on any threatened legal action.

"The goal has always been to ensure the university reinforces clear expectations and a daily mind-set within athletics that the highest priority must be placed on educating, nurturing, and protecting young people," Emmert said. "The Executive Committee's decision to restore the football scholarships provides additional education opportunities and is an important recognition of Penn State's progress."

The unexpected revelation was cheered in State College, where the state's largest university has fought an uphill image battle since Sandusky's 2011 arrest on child-molestation charges and where coach Bill O'Brien's football talent had been thinned by the loss of scholarships and the transfer of some key players.

"This news is certainly welcome to our university community, particularly the student athletes who may want to attend Penn State and will now have the means to do so," president Rodney Erickson said in a statement. "As we promised throughout this process, we are committed to continuing to improve all of our policies, procedures, and actions."

The penalty reduction could be seen as further evidence of the NCAA's deep problems.

College sports' governing body has come under intense fire recently, not just from critics of the Freeh Report who saw the resulting punishment of Penn State and Paterno as unnecessarily harsh, but from those who question its viability in an athletic landscape increasingly dominated by television money. The Penn State sanctions, in which the NCAA bypassed its normal procedures because of the serious nature of the offenses, were widely viewed as an overreach by a weakened organization.

"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," Paterno's family said in a statement. "This action begins to correct the mistakes of the Board of Trustees, Mr. Freeh, and the NCAA. Penn State is a great University with an excellent culture. The ultimate resolution to this tragic episode is a full and fair review of the record. A transparent process that respects due process will serve the best interests of the victims, the university, the NCAA, and all other affected parties."

The late coach's son, Jay, a former PSU assistant, was critical of the decision in an earlier Tweet.

"NCAA gives back SOME PSU scholarships? Why not ALL? ANY football sanctions are still an affront to the truth," his Tweet read.

In 2014, five scholarships will be reinstated for O'Brien's football team. More will be added, based on the school's ongoing progress, until the limits of 25 scholarships a year and 85 total are reached. The penalty had annually reduced the number given to incoming freshmen from 25 to 15.

"We're happy right now for our players, our student-athletes that are here in our football program," O'Brien said shortly after learning the news. "They're a resilient bunch of kids."

The return of the scholarships could help Penn State hold on to O'Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator who already has attracted NFL attention. The toll the penalties would have taken on his Nittany Lions figured to increase as the number of lost scholarships mounted.

"The announcement just came out," O'Brien said during his weekly news conference. "We're obviously looking at it, studying it, just like we did when the sanctions came out last July. It takes a while to digest everything and then to apply it where you're headed.

"Even when we get that strategy into place, I'm not going to talk about it publicly. Obviously, we'll be able to sign some more guys and be able to have a roster of 75 scholarship players next year. So, things will change."

According to terms of the 2012 agreement with the NCAA that Penn State officials signed, the school had to implement the Freeh Report's 119 recommendations. They included the adoption of mandatory background checks for new employees and access restrictions at athletic facilities, along with the addition of a monitor to guarantee compliance with federal crime-reporting requirements.

"While there is more work to be done, Penn State has clearly demonstrated its commitment to restoring integrity in its athletics program," Mitchell said. "The university has substantially completed the initial implementation of all the Freeh Report recommendations."

Though Mitchell recommended the scholarship reinstatements, the specifics, he said, were determined by the NCAA and Big Ten Conference.

At least one trustee, Anthony Lubrano, a staunch defender of Paterno's legacy, said the NCAA didn't go far enough in correcting its mistake.

"It's a good first step, but it's not nearly enough," Lubrano said. "I want the NCAA to acknowledge that it overstepped its authority when it intervened in this matter.

"This is about much more than football. This is about fairness, justice, and due process - none of which has been afforded Penn State by Mark Emmert and the NCAA."

Athletic director Dave Joyner, who, along with Erickson, has been a target of those Penn State alumni angered by the NCAA penalties and the Freeh Report's findings, applauded the action.

"I am very happy for Coach O'Brien, the football coaches and staff, and the players," Joyner said in a statement. "[I'm] especially pleased for our current and future student-athletes, who are the most important reason why we love working in intercollegiate athletics. We will continue to work hard within the Athletics Integrity Agreement to fully comply and to achieve excellence in everything we do at Penn State."

Freeh's investigation, upon which the NCAA based its punishment, determined that Penn State's administrators as well as Paterno attempted to cover up an early child-abuse allegation against Sandusky because they feared its impact on the football program, revenues from which support the entire athletic department.

Sandusky, a longtime defensive coordinator for Paterno, was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys and is serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence. Two Penn State administrators implicated in the case, ex-athletic director Tim Curley and former vice president Gary Schultz, are scheduled to stand trial in Dauphin County on charges they conspired to cover up Sandusky's crimes.


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