Based on reports coming out about what the NCAA's going to do to Penn State, the widely repeated "unprecedented" portion of the punishment won't exactly refer to the nature of the penalties, but rather how they were arrived at. As Charles Robinson reports, "a 'multiple-year' bowl ban and 'crippling' scholarship losses" are included, but it's NCAA president Mark Emmert's unilateral wielding of sanctions that's the truly ground-breaking element.
Technically, it's not the NCAA that's punishing Penn State. It's the NCAA president. This indeed changes things and will set up some very weird discussions the next time a school gets in trouble.
Typically, NCAA investigations take many months and involve several give-and-take phases in which the school argues its case, is informed of its charges and so forth. By comparison, Miami's NCAA investigation has been going on for months longer than Penn State's has and appears far from over.
In this instance, Emmert's skipping much of the process and using Penn State's own commissioned report by Louis Freeh as all the evidence he needs, Robinson reports. Emmert's granted himself this power by way of the NCAA's constitution and its board of directors, which has signed off on the move.
If Penn State hadn't chosen to pay for its own investigation into itself, the NCAA would have to do its own detective work here, meaning PSU sped up the process, quite possibly by years. And that report was hardly exhaustive -- it certainly was revealing but wasn't a legal document. Basing the entire thing on a report the school released on its own does not feel rock solid by any means, even considering the conclusion we're meant to take from that report is that all the true bad actors are gone.
Now we have a man consolidating a never-before-seen amount of institutional power for himself in order to punish a school for letting a man have too much power, days after we all laughed at the Big Ten for wanting to do the same. This is going to change things.