Penn State’s Last Minute Pardon

When the National Collegiate Athletic Conference handed down Penn State’s punishment back in July, many were shocked. The sanctions required the university to a pay $60 million fine, eliminate several scholarships stay out of postseason games for the next four years. Penn State also had to forfeit all football wins between 1998 and 2011.

It did see like a slightly odd punishment, however, retroactively removing wins and deeply curtailing the program, if only briefly. What was the NCAAA trying to accomplish in this case?

According to an article by Don Van Natta Jr. at ESPN The Magazine, the actual punishment to Penn State appears to have been a compromise:

“I just imagined an empty stadium,” says [Penn State’s lawyer Gene] Marsh, a former chairman of the NCAA’s infractions committee who has since defended many schools and coaches before it, including former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. “I thought about the wind blowing through the portals and all the economic and social and spiritual ramifications of that empty stadium. And this would last … years?”

That same morning [July 17], NCAA President Mark A. Emmert called Penn State President Rodney A. Erickson and told him the majority of the NCAA’s Division I board of directors — 18 university presidents — had coalesced around a decision: Shut down Penn State’s football program for four years.

But Penn State kept trying. Apparently between July 17 and July 19 Penn State lawyers pleaded with the NCAA to institute something less stringent. The advocates pointed out that the school had commissioned the Freeh report, the trustees accepted responsibility, virtually all of the administrators who knew about, the Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse at the time it occurred were gone from the school, and the elimination of the football program would be potentially catastrophic to the economy of Central Pennsylvania.

And so apparently at some point in the negotiations the NCAA dropped the “death penalty” punishment. Emmert apparently felt that it was fairly important to note the number of innocent people who would be hurt by a four-year football ban. As Van Natta points out, it hardly seemed like a victory, but the school narrowly missed a crushing defeat.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer