A little over a year after hitting Penn State with unprecedented sanctions for its handling of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal, the NCAA announced Tuesday it would ease up on that punishment.
Five football scholarships that had been stripped will now be restored next year, as will an additional five in the following year, giving the program an expedited path to fielding a strong team. A $60 million fine and postseason ban will remain in place, for now, though the NCAA said the ban could be lifted ahead of schedule.
"This news is certainly welcome to our university community, particularly the student athletes who may want to attend Penn State and will now have the means to do so," said Penn State President Rodney Erickson.
In announcing the change, the NCAA said Penn State had shown "continued progress toward ensuring academic integrity" and toward implementing the 119 corrective measures outlined in the Freeh Report, the damning independent study that confirmed university higher-ups had failed to stop repeated on-campus abuse of minors. The change comes weeks after former Sen. George Mitchell, who had been appointed to oversee the university's compliance with the sanctions, praised the college's progress.
"While there is more work to be done, Penn State has clearly demonstrated its commitment to restoring integrity in its athletics program," Mitchell said in a statement Tuesday. "The university has substantially completed the initial implementation of all the Freeh Report recommendations and its obligations to the Athletics Integrity Agreement, so relief from the scholarship reductions is warranted and deserved."
In July 2012, the NCAA sanctioned Penn State for having "enabled serial child sexual abuse" by "perpetuating a football first" culture. The NCAA fined Penn State $60 million, stripped it of football scholarships, vacated all wins from 1998-2011, and banned it from postseason play for four years. However, the NCAA stopped short of a so-called "death penalty" that would have terminated the football program for an indeterminate number of years.
The NCAA took some flak for its unprecedented punishment, with critics accusing it of going overboard and trying to starve the football program to death. In taking the unusual step of relaxing those sanctions, the NCAA is now essentially saying, "We have taken unprecedented action to correct a previous unprecedented action, but this should not be considered a precedent."
That meant other schools that have faced stiff sanctions for NCAA rules violations — but not for enabling extensive criminal acts — will not be getting similar treatment.
I asked USC AD Pat Haden about the Penn State decision. He forced a smile and said, "I'd love to have some scholarships back."
— Pete Thamel (@SIPeteThamel) September 24, 2013
Sandusky, who was convicted 45 counts of child abuse and sentenced to 30-60 years, is seeking a new trial. Penn Sate, meanwhile, has settled civil lawsuits with most of the men who claimed Sandusky abused them.