What PSU Sanction Reductions Say About NCAA's Diminishing Power

Adam KramerNational College Football Lead WriterSeptember 24, 2013

The NCAA is attempting to dig itself out of the hole it created by digging deeper, hoping to crack the surface on the other side. And even in an instance when the governing body finally got it right—as it did on Tuesday by announcing reduced sanctions for Penn State—we’re reminded how we got to this point in the first place.

More importantly, we’re still unsure about how or why the NCAA is reacting the way it has, seemingly rewriting the rulebook as it goes. One arbitrary, unexplainable punishment has given way to an arbitrary solution (albeit a partial one), with motives that differ greatly from the disingenuous reasoning provided.

Regardless of the intent behind this dramatic move, the NCAA announced on Tuesday that it would “gradually restore” Penn State football scholarships and that further modifications to the heavy-handed punishment handed down in 2012 could be coming. Via NCAA.org:

Due to Penn State University’s continued progress toward ensuring athletics integrity, the NCAA Executive Committee is gradually restoring football scholarships the university lost because of sanctions more than a year ago. These changes were endorsed by the Division I Board of Directors and based on the recommendation of George Mitchell, the independent Athletics Integrity Monitor for Penn State and former U.S. Senator.

Beginning next academic year (2014-15), five additional initial scholarships will be restored to the university’s football team. This amount will continue to increase until they reach the full allocation of 25 initial in 2015-16 and 85 total football scholarships in 2016-17.

The NCAA also didn’t rule out the possibility of shortening the team’s four-year postseason ban, saying, “The group may consider additional mitigation of the postseason ban in the future depending upon Penn State’s continued progress.”

That could prove to be significant, and the changes, as laid out, drastically alter the dreary outlook of the next five to eight years. The added scholarships will help soften the inevitable depth concerns, and the additions will go into effect starting next year, with five. Not only that, but Bill O’Brien can use these changes as ammunition on the recruiting trail, where he has thrived in his time at the school despite the difficult circumstances.

Sep 21, 2013; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Bill O'Brien (left) shakes hands with coaches after beating the Kent State Golden Flashes 34-0 at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports
Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Attracting marquee talent has yet to be an issue (see: freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg and a 2014 recruiting class currently ranked fourth in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports). Dealing with limited scholarships, however, has greatly impacted how this team operates. That won’t be the case for much longer.

For the NCAA, the decision sets yet another dangerous precedent—as much as it says otherwise—in an attempt to repair the precedent it set (and denied) in its original ruling.

It did not conduct its own investigation, choosing instead to rely on the Freeh Report and push aside all other NCAA cases at the time—we’re still waiting for a decision on Miami, by the way—in an effort to reach a resolution before the 2012 season began.

A little more than a year later and the NCAA is rewarding Penn State’s cooperation by reducing penalties. That reads just fine in a press release, but the lessening of such punishments is a clear admission that after ample reflection the NCAA decided that ruling was excessively harsh. And at a time when the NCAA is trying to garner as much positive PR as possible—talking about dramatic change on the horizon—the timing of this news is curious.

NCAA President Mark Emmert combated this notion while speaking with reporters on Tuesday, deflecting the decision as the “right thing to do” versus an attempt to improve the image of his organization.

Mark Emmert said this decision was made because it was "the right thing to do" and was not about a "public relations position"...

— Joe Schad (@schadjoe) September 24, 2013

If this is “the right thing to do,” what exactly does that say about the initial decision?

More than anything, however, the decision to reduce the sanctions against Penn State lacks consistency and reasoning—the two things we’ve been craving when it comes to NCAA enforcement.

The idea of NCAA enforcement in this instance can be questioned altogether, and the NCAA appears to be doing just that with its latest response. Emmert can fight the idea of "precedent" all he wants, but there's no other way to look at it.

Emmert: "This should not be seen as a precedent for handling other cases." Notes this has been handled in "extraordinary manner."

— Stewart Mandel (@slmandel) September 24, 2013

“Extraordinary manner” is a fancy way to say arbitrary, and the NCAA is poised to fill in the blanks with pencil for as long as it pleases and is allowed to do so. In Penn State's case, it attempted to quantify the appropriate fine, scholarships lost and postseason bans for a scandal that warranted something beyond NCAA action.

As it admitted without actually saying so on Tuesday, this initial response was flawed.

And in an attempt to correct such results, the NCAA has again turned to its own set of guidelines—the ones that are being created right before our eyes. It will continue to claim this power as harnessed until it surfaces yet again.

All the while the notion of precedent will be ignored as the NCAA continues to dig, searching for the other side.