NCAA's credibility at stake with Penn State ruling

Only the vestiges of their images remain now that the statues of Joe Paterno and Penn State football players have been removed from outside Beaver Stadium. (JOHN BEALE / Associated Press).

Pennsylvania State University has accepted the tough sanctions handed down by the National Collegiate Athletic Association for covering up the tracks of a child-sex predator for years — and so should everyone else associated with the school, as painful as that may be.

The unprecedented ruling announced Monday by the NCAA included a $60 million fine, a four-year ban on the Nittany Lions football team appearing in bowl games, the loss of 10 football scholarships a year for four years, and, in perhaps the most devastating blow, the vacation of all the team’s wins since 1998.

That’s the first year of the sexual attacks alleged in the indictment of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted in June of molesting 10 boys, often on the Penn State campus, whom he had befriended through the Second Mile organization he founded to help at-risk youths.

Taking 112 victories away from  the Lions also strips the late Joe Paterno of his title as the winningest coach of all time in major-college football. The announcement, coupled with the removal of his statue Sunday from outside Beaver Stadium, makes Paterno’s humiliation complete.

The coach remained a somewhat sympathetic figure after being fired last year as the Sandusky controversy heated up. But his halo was obliterated after an independent investigation commissioned by Penn State detailed Paterno’s complicity in the cover-up, along with former PSU president Graham Spanier and Athletic Director Tim Curley.

It had been uncertain whether the NCAA would get involved, though the door was open through rules that call for its members to maintain institutional control over their athletic programs. Clearly, the Penn State administration lost control when it decided that keeping secrets was more important than revealing a truth that might have saved who knows how many boys from Sandusky’s clutches.

The punishment is harsh. The $60 million is said to represent the annual revenue typically generated by the Lions football team. Gov. Corbett should stipulate that no taxpayer money go toward paying that penalty. Communities that thrive on the economic impact of the football team will likely suffer enough if the NCAA sanctions reduce not only the quality of the team, but its fan base.

The NCAA more typically takes away scholarships and bowl appearances after a guilty school has been caught taking unfair advantage through a recruiting or eligibility violation. Critics of the Penn State decision noted that the NCAA never before had issued sanctions without giving a school time to respond to charges.

But the NCAA’s stepping up its game is understandable. It had to act boldly to try to protect whatever credibility college athletics has left. It is doing its best to defend a system in which the term student athlete is followed by winks and giggles, and college presidents pretend their decisions aren’t affected at all by how much money the football team is raking in.

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