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The NCAA reduces Penn State's sanctions and starts paddling back to shore

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Unforgivable things happened at Penn State. The NCAA's arbitrary reaction to those things has yet to do anyone any good, but don't expect the NCAA to learn that.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The NCAA's punishment of Penn State football players and coaches for the Jerry Sandusky scandal was never a fitting punishment. It never could've been. We said this before and immediately after the scholarship sanctions, bowl ban, and assorted other penalties were handed out.

An imperfect metaphor: it was a traffic court trying to punish an act of international terrorism. Imperfect because traffic courts involve legitimate judicial processes.

Tuesday, the NCAA announced that Penn State's scholarship sanctions are being reduced, effectively giving the Nittany Lions the chance to have a full roster by 2016, not 2018. The NCAA is also considering lifting that four-year bowl ban early. All of this, according to the NCAA, is due to good behavior. Good behavior by people who were not even working, coaching, or playing at Penn State when Sandusky's crimes were committed.

There are something like three ways of looking at this:

  1. The NCAA knows it's all out of public good will and wanted to do something nice for somebody.
  2. The NCAA was genuinely impressed by Penn State's efforts and elected to change its previous decision.
  3. The NCAA will do business in a more flexible manner from now on, with regular look-ins throughout the course of a school's time in sanctions land.

NCAA president Mark Emmert assures you it is not the latter:

Two things:

1. No NCAA case should be "seen as a precedent" for handling other cases. There is a Byzantine algorithm and a cement block of a rule book and a decoder magnifying glass, and certain actions produce certain results. Cooperating with the NCAA almost always means a much lighter sentence, for one. But when it comes to the big cases, punishments amount to what feels good for the NCAA at the moment.

USC lost a national championship, a Heisman Trophy, 30 scholarships, and two years' worth of bowl bans. All for some money, which Reggie Bush's position coach allegedly knew about. Ohio State lost nine scholarships and a potential national championship for its coach looking the other way while players sold their property.

Compare those numbers to the sanctions originally handed to Penn State for allegedly covering up Sandusky's decades-long spree of horror: 40 scholarships, a four-year bowl ban, two vacated Big Ten titles, and others*.

There is no math by which child rape is only two or three times as bad as a superstar athlete being paid. When the NCAA chose** to take on the crimes that happened at Penn State, its only logical option was to blast the football program to hell. The NCAA could've left the matter to actual authorities, or it could've deleted the program. Anything in between: a grandstanding farce.

The NCAA was proud of itself for dealing Penn State players and coaches a heavy blow for the sins of predecessors, but by daring to even translate a monster rampage into bowl games, the NCAA proved precedent was a concept never in its grasp to begin with.

* The one sanction that actually made the world a better place, of course, is that $60 million fine, which is to be put toward child abuse victims. And even that's tangled in NCAA muck.

** Chose, since it didn't have to do anything. The NCAA is meant to govern athlete eligibility, not crimes. No athlete's eligibility was at stake. It waded out of the waters it charted for itself, and now it's paddling back.

2. All major NCAA cases are handled in "extraordinary" manners. The Miami case has yet to be concluded, despite the Canes missing two bowl games already, the NCAA's own investigation into the NCAA's investigation of Miami being botched, investigation personnel fleeing for the institutions they were tasked with investigating, and both Miami and the ACC openly calling for the whole thing to end. Is this not an extraordinary case?

The Oregon investigation into a recruiting agent being paid in 2010 concluded in June 2013. The guilty party, Chip Kelly, was blackballed from college football for 18 months despite almost certainly being employed by the Philadelphia Eagles for the entire 18 months. The remaining football program was dinged for ... employing Chip Kelly? This wasn't an extraordinary case, I take it.

What about USC and Ohio State made them ordinary? Please point me to the most by-the-book, orderly major NCAA sanctions case, one that made sense to most reasonable people at the time and still holds up today, given how the governing body has handled other major cases since.

Penn State officials did not do everything they could to have Jerry Sandusky jailed. Sandusky will die a lonely, despised man with a broken brain. We'll never know exactly how culpable those officials were, but they're all gone. Joe Paterno is departed, as is his statue. Former president Graham Spanier, former vice president Gary Schultz, and former athletic director Tim Curley all face potential prison time and have lost their careers. The university's name is still tarnished.

None of this changes the fact that Sandusky spent his last years as a free man damaging as many human lives as he could. What that ever had to do with the National Collegiate Athletic Association, we'll never know.

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