Penn State Football: Why the NCAA Should Give Back Joe Paterno's Vacated Wins

Ben Kercheval@@BenKerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterJanuary 13, 2015

A banner celebrating the 409 wins of former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno waves over the parking lot tailgating outside Beaver Stadium before  an NCAA college football game between the Penn State and the Temple in State College, Pa., Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Two and a half years ago, NCAA President Mark Emmert took an unprecedented approach by personally driving down the hammer on Penn State.

Now, slowly, the NCAA is backing away from its stance on the Jerry Sandusky-child-abuse scandal.

Of all the athletic sanctions imposed by Emmert on Penn State in July 2012—the $60 million fine, the loss of scholarships, the postseason ban—vacating 111 of former coach Joe Paterno's 409 career wins was the most meaningless. 

The NCAA is apparently conceding as much.

Per Susan Snyder and Angela Couloumbis of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the NCAA, state officials and Penn State are looking to restoring those wins. The move would be the next step in the NCAA's decision to gradually overturn previously enforced sanctions: 

In the 2 1/2 years since the punishment was announced, an NCAA monitor consistently has praised the university for reforms, including its overhaul of board operations and adding ethics and athletic integrity officers. In recognition of the progress, the NCAA previously lifted a ban on postseason football play, paving the way for the Nittany Lions to play in the Pinstripe Bowl last month. The league also restored football scholarships.

But the decision to vacate Paterno's wins continues to be a thorny issue in the Penn State community.

His teams in State College compiled 409 wins over a half-century, until he was fired by the board of trustees days after Sandusky, his longtime top defensive assistant, was charged with sexually abusing boys. Paterno died weeks later at age 85.

If this is the route the NCAA wishes to go, it's the right one. The problem is it's a couple of years too late.

The NCAA's involvement in the Sandusky scandal has been a contested issue, especially given the fact that Emmert was the one laying down the law. Penn State is a member of the NCAA, and the association would undoubtedly have been criticized for not taking a stance.

And did the NCAA ever take a stance, calling out Penn State for a win-at-all-costs culture.

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"As the individuals charged with governing college sports, we have a responsibility to act," Emmert said at the time, via PennLive.com's Dustin Hockensmith. "These events should serve as a call to every single school and athletics department to take an honest look at its campus environment and eradicate the 'sports are king' mindset that can so dramatically cloud the judgment of educators."

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

However, the situation was a criminal matter, not an athletic one.

The crimes committed by Sandusky happened in the athletic arena, but weren't football related. Put simply, there has never been anything quite like the Sandusky case, and the NCAA's rule book wasn't equipped to handle it. 

Sandusky, a former player and longtime Penn State assistant under Paterno from 1966-99, was found guilty on 45 counts of child sex abuse charges in June 2012. University officials, as well as Paterno, were accused of turning a blind eye to Sandusky's unimaginable crimes.

Former Penn State President Graham Spanier, former Senior Vice President Gary Schultz and former Athletic Director Tim Curley are still awaiting trial. Paterno died of lung cancer in early 2012.

So, the sanctions from Emmert were levied in an effort to do something—anything—about what happened.

But here's where things got twisted: vacating Paterno's wins never did anything.

It never gave Sandusky's victims their innocence back. It never truly erased what happened on the field. The games still happened, Paterno still coached them and people still watched them. They didn't disappear into thin air.

Dialing back the sanctions now that people's attention spans have expired might not be a good look, but the NCAA is at least admitting it was wrong—even if it's not outright admitting it. 

Ultimately, the wins aren't the most important part of the Sandusky story.

Lives were ruined, and a child predator should have been behind bars decades ago. The wins, the scholarships, the postseason ban? They were all small potatoes in comparison.

The NCAA did what it could given the jurisdiction it felt it had. The issue was that any attempt to prove a point using that jurisdiction was fruitless. Over time, it appears the NCAA has realized that.

The wins never should have been vacated to begin with. It matters little now, but it's a small gesture in the bigger picture.

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football.