George Mitchell, the integrity monitor for Penn State athletics, says the lessening of sanctions were made because of the school's compliance, not because they were unduly harsh.
By Mark Dent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The noise grew louder this summer, calls for the NCAA to modify its sanctions against Penn State football. The noise came from lawsuits, university trustees, even Penn State coach Bill O'Brien.
Tuesday, the NCAA did change its mind, somewhat. The organization announced it would allow the Penn State football team to increase its number of scholarship players, revising a portion of the punishment levied on the university in July 2012 as a result of the Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal..
Originally mandated to carry a maximum of 65 scholarship players under the sanctions the next four years and to award no more than 15 scholarships per season for the next three years, Penn State can now sign 20 players for the upcoming 2014 season and have a roster of 75 scholarship players.
In 2015, Penn State can sign 25 new scholarship players and have 80 scholarship players on its roster. In 2016 and 2017, it can sign 25 and have 85 scholarship players -- the maximum allowed for any Division I-A team -- on its roster.
"This news is certainly welcome to our university community, particularly the student athletes who may want to attend Penn State and will now have the means to do so," university president Rodney Erickson said in a statement. "As we promised throughout this process, we are committed to continuing to improve all of our policies, procedures and actions."
There have been made no modifications to other sanctions -- the vacating of victories dating to 1998, the $60 million fine or the bowl ban, which keeps Penn State out of postseason play this year and for the next two years. NCAA president Mark Emmert said on a conference call that discussing the possibility of lifting that ban in the future was hypothetical and not valuable to discuss right now. The NCAA noted on its website, though, that "additional mitigation may be considered depending on Penn State's continued progress."
The NCAA's executive committee voted to revise the sanctions because of progress made by Penn State in complying with the proposed changes put forth by the Athletics Integrity Agreement it entered with the NCAA. Emmert said the modification was not based on a request from Penn State. George Mitchell, who was named by the NCAA as Penn State's athletics integrity monitor, said the lessening of the sanctions was not because they were "inappropriate or unduly harsh."
Not once during a 27-minute teleconference did any of the NCAA's representatives say the reduction of the sanctions came as a result of rethinking their original punishment. Their continuing message was that Penn State had done a good job making the changes the NCAA set forth in conjunction with the Freeh Report.
In the consent decree Erickson and Emmert signed last year, there was language indicating that modifications could be made if both parties agreed. Lou Anna Simon, chair of the NCAA executive committee and president of Michigan State University, said they hadn't planned to consider changes until after two years but that Mitchell's recommendations led to their actions now.
"Culture takes time, so a change in culture doesn't happen overnight in an institution," she said. "We did recognize that they clearly have taken many, many steps toward improving the culture of sports on campus."
Some of the progress Mitchell has been pleased with includes Penn State instituting a policy for addressing conflicts of interest, enhancing security particularly at buildings in which minors are present and creating a position for an integrity officer in the athletic department.
The sanctions have been controversial since they were enacted. In January, Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett filed an antitrust lawsuit on behalf of the commonwealth against the NCAA. It was thrown out in June. In a statement yesterday, Corbett said, "I am pleased that the NCAA is recognizing the important changes and reforms that the university has undertaken and will continue to make moving forward."
In May, the family of former football coach Joe Paterno, several former Penn State players and coaches and several members of the Penn State Board of Trustees filed a lawsuit against the NCAA, claiming the organization bypassed its protocol for punishing universities and harmed them through the sanctions.
The lawsuit is ongoing, and Paterno family spokesperson Dan McGinn said the reduction of sanctions wouldn't change their plans.
"If anything, it validates the assertion that the NCAA acted inappropriately here," he said.
Trustee Barbara Doran, elected by alumni this year, said the modifications were a step in the right direction but wanted to see more action from the NCAA.
"The NCAA's error in imposing the penalties in the first place is not addressed, and I hope it will be at some future time," she said.
The other part of the sanctions -- besides the scholarship reduction and bowl ban -- was the $60 million fine (to be paid in $12 million annual increments over five years) that Penn State was ordered to give to child abuse charities. The NCAA said on its website that reducing or eliminating that fine was not considered.
State senator Jake Corman sued the NCAA to keep the $60 million for Pennsylvania charities only. Earlier this month, a judge rejected the NCAA's motion to dismiss the suit. Corman declined to comment for this article.
At a news conference Tuesday, O'Brien expressed a willingness to continue to work with the NCAA.
"We have to keep doing what we're doing and to do what's right for our football program here and most importantly for the university," he said.