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NCAA's Penn State choices show it cares about power, not being right

No matter what you think of the NCAA's decision to punish Penn State players and coaches for the Jerry Sandusky disaster, its decision to change that punishment reveals a broken system.

Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

If it wasn't clear before, it is now. The NCAA is just making this all up as it goes along. Two years after the organization levied an unprecedented four-year bowl ban and major scholarship losses to Penn State football following the Jerry Sandusky investigation, it handed down another unprecedented decision, immediately ending those sanctions.

I'm uninterested in a moral debate over whether this was the right thing to do, because I'm unsure myself. I think punishing players who had nothing to do with the scandal by holding them out of bowl games for their entire careers was misguided, though. Reasonable people are going to disagree about how this should have been handled, and by whom, and that's okay.

But what's not okay is that the NCAA's enforcement structure hinges on how willing you are to let it do what it wants. And that is what happened here, as the NCAA noted that Penn State has done a good enough job of moving on and should be rewarded for it.

Due to Penn State University's significant progress toward ensuring its athletics department functions with integrity, the NCAA Executive Committee today eliminated the school's postseason ban, effective immediately, and will return the full complement of football scholarships in 2015-16.

How has Penn State really gone above and beyond the initial requirements? The school has paid its fine, hasn't had a major screw-up since, and has largely disassociated itself from those involved in the scandal. Those were just parts of the initial punishment, which came along with the bowl ban and the scholarship reductions. They weren't presented as benchmarks that could be met in order to decrease the number of years on the ban.

But the NCAA changed the terms of the agreement. That's what the NCAA does, despite constantly asserting that it must enforce its rules because they're built on a century of values.

Contrast the Penn State situation to the USC punishment in 2010, and that becomes clear. The Trojans and the Nittany Lions both ended up with two-year bowl bans, since PSU's was shortened. USC's punishment was for Reggie Bush allegedly receiving improper benefits, something that is wrong in NCAA terms, but not morally reprehensible.

We can say that the NCAA shortened Penn State's punishment for the sake of the student-athletes, but it's hard to believe that when it didn't think about USC's athletes while making its decision to assign harsh penalties to the school. More likely, Penn State was treated better than USC because the Trojans — and most notably, former athletic director Mike Garrett — didn't give in to the NCAA's demands.

In the case of Miami, in which far more players were implicated in receiving improper benefits, the NCAA praised the university.

NCAA Committee on Infractions chair Britton Banowsky gushed in a teleconference about UM's "significant" self-imposed penalties, namely the two postseason bans that encompassed three games. He also said the committee was impressed with UM's cooperation in the case.

NCAA penalties aren't really based on what the infraction is, nor are they levied with any type of consistency.

The message sent on Monday by the NCAA, in light of the Miami and USC cases, is that the best thing you can do if you get in any hot water is make it look like the NCAA is doing things right. It's not about making sure athletes can play in bowl games, and it's not about making sure the punishment fits the crime.

The organization levies punishments and takes them away based not on the offense, but on how well the school respects the organization's authority. That's not a healthy enforcement system, and it's why nobody will walk away from either the Penn State punishment or subsequent retraction feeling all that good about the system.