The NCAA has voided its historic sanctions on Penn State. This outcome was the result of a lawsuit from Pennsylvania State Sen. Jake Corman and Treasurer Rob McCord that evolved in its scope.
Corman and McCord’s legal challenge ultimately called into question the entire basis and merit for the NCAA’s sanctions. Badly embarrassed during discovery (“I characterized our approach to PSU as a bluff…”), the NCAA’s voiding of its sanctions is a reminder that setting aside ethics for the sake of waging a public relations campaign untethered from an interest in the truth is simple bad governance. Meanwhile the entire Penn State/Joe Paterno/Jerry Sandusky/NCAA scandal is really a conglomeration of dozens of smaller scandals. Any failure as systemic as the Sandusky crimes is by its nature complex. I’m not going to get into all of that, but I do want to say a few things about this latest news and some of its implications.
First, it’s critical to understand that the NCAA has voided its entire sanctions package. This isn’t merely a restoration of Joe Paterno’s victories. It’s a comprehensive acknowledgement that the NCAA’s sanctions package was fundamentally without basis.
In parallel, it’s critical to understand that the Freeh Report is no longer credible. The basis for the mainstream criticism of the university’s handling of the scandal, it was so weak the NCAA could only rely on its as a bluffing instrument. Dick Thornburgh, ex-U.S. Attorney General, calls its presentment-style conclusions “raw speculation and unsupported opinion—not facts and evidence.” Without the Freeh Report as basis for the notion of an institutional cover up, or the NCAA sanctions premised on that conclusion, the popular narrative around Penn State’s role in the larger scandal will require reevaluation. This is what everyone from Bob Costas to Malcolm Gladwell has said for some time, but the NCAA’s latest decision concretizes this.
Second, the criminal trials of the three remaining administrators accused of attempting to bury knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes for the sake of Penn State’s overall or athletic reputation have yet to occur. Those trials start this year, and if the administrators are found not guilty, consequently any lingering pretense of Penn State institutional cover up vanishes. Paterno of course is dead, but his long term reputation and legacy as much as any of the living three administrators hinges on the fate of this impending criminal trial.
Third, this restoration is ultimately a recognition that Penn State’s “Success with Honor” approach was in fact worthwhile. Those with flawed understanding of the facts are likely to be very confused about the NCAA’s decision, unfortunately. It’s not clear that there’s any easy way to correct the meta-narrative for the sake of Penn State’s current student athletes let alone those who played for Joe Paterno over nearly half a century.
The NCAA’s decision to void its sanctions will become as much a story about Joe Paterno as anything else. It’s true that “409” became a rallying cry for both Joe Paterno’s Grand Experiment in academics and “Success with Honor” mantra in athletics. But it also came to stand as a signal rejection of the Freeh Report and NCAA implications about the character of the Penn State community.
Sen. Corman and Rob McCord’s role in this chapter of the story is a fascinating case study in achieving a consequential and unexpected victory. This development isn’t the result of Penn State leadership seeking to fight for its reputation. It’s the result of a lawsuit against both the NCAA and an unwilling university to challenge the basis of the most controversial sanctions in the history of collegiate athletics.
This is a lesson in the sometimes worth of standing in the difficult place of outsider for an institution unable to acknowledge its own best interests, challenging something few think impossible to change, and then winning.