NCAA president Mark Emmert can explain until he turns Nittany Blue that the NCAA eased its sanctions against Penn State as a reaction to the university's good behavior. And on its face, that's true. Penn State has begun implementing the change in athletic culture that the NCAA demanded when it threw the Nittany Lions under its jail for the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The decision to begin restoring football scholarships, Emmert said in a hastily called teleconference Tuesday, is "solely a recognition of the very good work that has been done by the Penn State leadership and their willingness to drive change."
But the decision to begin restoring football scholarships to coach Bill O'Brien is a tacit acknowledgment that the NCAA sanctions constituted an overreaction that diminished the organization in the eyes of its member schools and the public. That sound coming from University Park, Pa., is a bell unringing.
Here's the meat and potatoes: Instead of three more years of granting 15 initial and 65 total scholarships, O'Brien will be allowed to restore five per year in each category. Penn State will return to the NCAA maximum of 25 initials in 2015-16, and a team limit of 85 the following year. The other sanctions -- the $60 million fine, four-year postseason ban and the five-year probation -- remain intact.
Emmert said the decision followed the recommendation made by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, the independent athletics integrity monitor appointed by the NCAA to oversee a change in the Penn State athletic culture.
Here's how much the case has shifted. In the press release of July 23, 2012 announcing the sanctions, the NCAA set forward no conditions by which it would consider easing the penalties. In fact, it said the exact opposite. After demanding that the university execute the recommendations set forward in the Freeh Report, the NCAA added, "(T)he university is subject to more severe penalties if it does not adhere to these requirements or violates NCAA rules in any sport during this (probationary) time period."
Ah, the Freeh Report. Commissioned by the university, and leaning heavily on the integrity of former FBI director Louis Freeh, the report said authoritatively that university officials, including the late coach Joe Paterno, knew that Sandusky was a danger to children and did nothing to stop him, fearing bad publicity.
It turns out that key portions of the Freeh Report had the shelf life of the fruit that grows in Penn State's orchards. It turns out that many athletic administrators wondered why the NCAA decided that it had jurisdiction in the Penn State case, especially without bothering to launch an investigation. The NCAA, without the trust of its member institutions, has raised questions about its authority to govern those institutions.
The Penn State case, the O'Bannon lawsuit, and the bollixing of the Miami case, which has gone on so long that even Inspector Javert said, "Enough already," all have eaten away at the foundation of the NCAA.
So a year has passed, and instead of threatening Penn State with more penalties, the NCAA is taking some of the sanctions away. In their zeal to pick up torches and pitchforks, Emmert and the presidents who run the NCAA not only damaged Penn State, but hurt their organization, too. Cooler heads needed to prevail, and there wasn't a cool head in the house.
By clutching to the robes of Sen. Mitchell, the NCAA bought some integrity. Mitchell declared earlier this month in a report that Penn State has executed significant change in its athletic culture. On Tuesday, Mitchell recommended that the penalties be modified "to the extent that [the NCAA] deemed appropriate." He called it "positive change for a positive action."
It would have been simpler to do it right the first time.