No one could argue that the Penn State football program did not pay a severe price for the Jerry Sandusky child-abuse scandal.
Sure, there were people who believed then and perhaps now that the Nittany Lions deserved the death penalty for the school's role in the former assistant coach's horrific crimes, and there are valid, moral reasons for that opinion. But Penn State has served a two-year bowl ban, surrendered dozens of scholarships, paid a $60 million fine, surrendered millions more in Big Ten bowl revenues, and dealt with an immeasurable stain on its reputation.
That's why the NCAA executive committee's decision on Monday to restore bowl eligibility immediately and bring the team back to the full 85 scholarships next season was the right call. Enough was enough.
Forget for a moment the unprecedented lengths NCAA president Mark Emmert traveled in order to punish Penn State for what was a criminal matter, not an NCAA rules violation. Discard the notion that those penalties and the ongoing oversight reports by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell were mostly a public relations show. It simply never made sense to hold accountable current players and coaches who had no association whatsoever to Sandusky.
All who were actually involved are gone. Former Penn State president Graham Spanier, ex-athletic director Tim Curley and former administrator Gary Schultz lost their jobs and are awaiting trial. Former coach Joe Paterno is dead, and his legacy has been carefully scrubbed from all official proceedings. The school is on its second president (Eric Barron) since Spanier was deposed and recently hired its second athletic director (Sandy Barbour) since the scandal broke. James Franklin is the second coach since Paterno, and neither he nor predecessor Bill O'Brien had any direct ties to the school.
This is a new Penn State today, one that Mitchell noted has cooperated with 115 of the 119 recommendations made by the controversial Freeh report. Yet despite Mitchell's glowing remarks about the school's "commitment to integrity," anyone who has ever proudly yelled "We Are" knew deep down that the Nittany Lions didn't really have a "culture problem" -- at least not conventionally so.
Far from some rogue program, Penn State always ranked near the top of the NCAA graduation rates and never had to worry about knowing the names of infractions committee members. Sandusky was able to roam and prey in large part because Penn State was such a close-knit and closed-off community that provided too little oversight of its ingrained leadership. How banning the current football team from playing in a bowl game reflected or changed any of that never really computed.
The university must continue to make sure that checks and balances exist, and Monday's news should help provide more closure to the school's most difficult era. The divide between those who believe Paterno did no wrong and those who disagree may remain too large to bridge in the near future, however.
What the entire Penn State community can rally behind, even more so than it already has, is this season's football team. Freed from the NCAA shackles, the Nittany Lions can make a legitimate run at a postseason game this fall, and the turnout for a bowl should be huge if they get to one. Just about everything Franklin has touched since arriving in State College has turned to gold. He has hit all the right notes with fans, reeled in top recruits despite the restrictions, and won his opener on a last-second field goal. Heck, even his former team, Vanderbilt, has gone up in flames in its first two games since he left.
Unleashing Franklin onto an even playing field should make Penn State a Big Ten and national force again in the very near future, though there will be roster ramifications from the initial scholarship reductions still to overcome. The fact that the Nittany Lions didn't completely collapse under the weight of the sanctions -- they managed to avoid having a losing season, kept a player exodus to a minimum and still drew large crowds to Beaver Stadium -- are a testament to O'Brien and 2012 captains like Michael Mauti, along with the unyielding devotion that Pennsylvanians have for the Blue and White.
Some might still contend that Penn State should have stopped playing football altogether as penance for what Sandusky did under their noses. But the Nittany Lions are still here, and there's no reason to keep punishing current and future players. A steep price has already been paid.