I will say now what I said two years ago: The NCAA was misguided in its handling of Penn State in light of a terrible sequence of events centering around the actions of Jerry Sandusky, but it was thrust into a position to have to do something to deliver a message.
In handling an unprecedented situation, the NCAA appears to have been succumbing to public pressure to punish Penn State and to do so severely. Now, two years after issuing a four-year postseason ban, taking away a significant number of scholarships, vacating over 100 wins, and fining the university $60 million, the NCAA has found a way to admit it may have been a tad harsh in its own response to the disgusting situation. By having Penn State work with George Mitchell, the NCAA allowed itself to have an out clause, and it is taking it.
On Monday, the NCAA announced it would adhere to Mitchell’s recommendation in his latest annual report by lifting the postseason ban for Penn Sate football immediately and allowing the program to restore an 85-scholarship total starting next year. In a somewhat ironic twist, the announcement came exactly two years after what many consider the low point during the sanction period, a road loss at Virginia.
The Big Ten followed suit and confirmed Penn State would be eligible to play in the Big Ten Championship Game, should the Nittany Lions qualify under the league rules as the East Division champion this fall or next. Suddenly, James Franklin’s job in State College just became easier. The longtime sleeping giant is not quite awake just yet in State College, but it may be starting to move out of its REM cycle.
Before Penn State can start to allow imaginations and dreams to run wild, it will be important to be able to prove the time served was not wasted as a university. By all accounts, it would seem the university has been addressing the NCAA’s concerns with great responsiveness. A complete overhaul in leadership has taken place at the university, from president to athletic director to football coach and staff at all levels. The Board of Trustees has seen some turnover as well, although that remains a complicated situation while the entire Penn State community still struggles to come together on some issues of varying degrees.
Those who have read or followed me for a while know this, but I feel I should state it once again, due to the fact that this is the first time I have addressed the matter here at The Student Section: I did not go to Penn State, but I grew up learning most everything I know about college football by watching Penn State football. My sister went to Penn State. My mom was a part-time student for 12 years at a satellite campus near our home. Joe Paterno wrote my mom a hand-written note when she graduated, which is currently framed on the computer desk in the basement of my parents’ house. I grew up in that Penn State state of mind. Penn State still flows through me on many levels. Heck, I run Bloguin’s Penn State blog, Nittany Lions Den. I got into sports media by covering Penn State football, and I feel my view of the program and its fans has evolved over time. Had I not gone into sports media, I admit I likely would be one of those Penn State truthers blinded by the failure of various leaders. I see things much differently today, and I did when this all broke on that ugly November afternoon of 2011 (on my birthday, no less).
There is so much good that comes out of Penn State, and I genuinely believe that. That does not, nor should it, overshadow the terrible decisions that were made and the missed opportunities to protect young children in and around the Penn State football program. There is plenty of blame to spread around, but those most responsible for this awful series of events have been convicted or are awaiting trial. Those who should be punished have been or will be punished by the legal system. Punishing the Penn State football players delivered a message from the NCAA, and I hope that message leads to at least some young lives being saved in some capacity. If that is accomplished, the NCAA’s sanctions did their part.
Now it is time for Penn State to prove as a football program, as a university and as a community, that lessons were learned during the abbreviated sanction period. Penn State was given a reward from the NCAA for good behavior. Nobody should take that reprieve for granted. There will be plenty of opinions heard on how Penn State students gathered in the streets and chanted for the Joe Paterno statue and the return of vacated wins Monday night (there were also plenty of other chants, including a “We Want Rutgers” cheer), but for one day Penn State was given a reason to come together and celebrate the healing process that has begun to take place at the school. It should also be noted the State College police department supported the showing of happy emotions.
Does this help the victims of Jerry Sandusky? Probably not, although that is not for you or I to pontificate on in all honesty. The victims will be justified by the legal system. That will not change.
All that is left for Penn State to do now is to adhere to the old adage made popular by Joe Paterno himself: Success with honor. Hopefully, that phrase proves to have the same meaning it once was thought to have. I think that it will.
Now, to put a purely football spin on all of this, where does Penn State fit into the Big Ten picture? Now that this has become a relevant and appropriate conversation to have, Penn State looks to play a huge role in the Big Ten title race. Whereas Penn State once could only play spoiler in the East, the Nittany Lions have a chance starting this week to get a jump on the division with a road game this weekend at Rutgers.
This will be no easy task, given the depth concerns Penn State still faces and the way the offense has played on its way to a 2-0 start. Rutgers will be playing its first Big Ten game and this is one fans have been getting excited for since the day the school announced it was joining the Big Ten. Opening the Big Ten era at home against Penn State is a huge deal, and now the Scarlet Knights are not even the big story this week. Rutgers will have quite the chip on its shoulder. Following a week when Michigan State, Ohio State, and Michigan all had significant losses, Penn State now has a chance to prove it is ready to lead the way. I have doubts they will do so by the end of the year (I’m still going with Michigan State in the East), but James Franklin has a chance to get an early jump on the competition with a 1-0 start in the division.
Yeah, this is quite a week for Penn State football. Hopefully, the course of time will ensure that this week is remembered for all the right reasons, not the wrong ones.