George Mitchell to the rescue for Penn State
George Mitchell is too good at his job to admit the NCAA screwed up with its original sanctions against Penn State in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
Mitchell brokered peace in Northern Ireland, studied Middle East issues, worked bills through the Senate as Majority Leader. He didn't do any of that by pointing fingers.
(He knows how to point fingers, though, and did it as head of an investigation into performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball.)
Hired by the NCAA to "monitor" Penn State, Mitchell was at his diplomatic best Tuesday when he said that the NCAA's stunning move to restore future football scholarships to Penn State was not based on the idea that initial sanctions were too harsh.
Go back more than a year to when the NCAA announced it was taking a boatload of scholarships away from Penn State as part of its Jerry Sandusky sanctions.
There was no hint at the time that Penn State could do anything to regain those scholarships.
That day, the NCAA did the impossible. Honchos of the national organizing body, led by president Mark Emmert, made themselves the bad guys reacting to a scandal marked by Penn State's blind eye to the sexual assault of children.
There was no due process involved in the unprecedented NCAA sanctions. On Tuesday, with a you-can't-make-this-up logic, Emmert said that lack of normal process is what allows the NCAA to reverse itself.
Don't take this as precedent, Emmert affirmed.
Well, no kidding.
You think Emmert would admit to a mistake? You must be new around here.
Of all the sanctions, the loss of scholarships was the big blow in terms of how Penn State could compete on the field. NCAA officials knew it. Nittany Lions coach Bill O'Brien certainly knew it. Nittany Lions fans knew it to the point they really couldn't blame O'Brien for listening to NFL overtures. The deal he had signed on for - rough enough in itself - changed considerably when scholarships were pulled from him.
O'Brien both put together a strong product on the field in 2012 and pretty much held together a fine recruiting class that had mostly committed before the sanctions.
Those sanctions were destined to have their effect down the road, so this obviously is a big day for Penn State football fans. According to Penn State, the school has been told that the amendment to the consent decree increases the limit on initial football scholarships from 15 to 20 for the 2014-2015 academic year, and from 15 to 25 for each of the next three seasons.
That will translate into different scores on the field. Better scores for Penn State.
However, Penn State fans were far from alone in objecting to the original NCAA sanctions. Emmert's tin ear to his membership - his obvious desire to be czar instead of hired representative - also is part of the equation.
St. Joseph's athletic director Don DiJulia had this to say last year about the process used in the Penn State sanctions: "So does the whole governing structure come into question? Maybe it should be changed, but we need to revisit the practice of the governance process if this vehicle is going to be used again."
I talked to a lawyer the day before the sanctions were officially announced, when news was leaked that an unprecedented fine would be included. The fine would be donated to charity. So why not, I asked, call it a donation?
"I don't think the NCAA is interested in making Penn State look good," said the lawyer, who specializes in NCAA cases. "I think they want to look strong on this."
That's the crux of it. NCAA honchos, naturally outraged by everything they saw in the Sandusky scandal, reacted in a way that was outside any established process. Yes, Penn State agreed to the sanctions, but at the point of a gun.
"We saw what happened when the Penn State board was excluded from a process," an athletic director told me last year, "and [there was] no check on decision-making in a serious matter."
Mitchell said the rollbacks (on scholarships only, not bowl bans or the fine) were the result of institutional progress made by Penn State.
"While there is more work to be done, Penn State has clearly demonstrated its commitment to restoring integrity to its athletics program," Mitchell said in a statement released by the NCAA.
He added, "Relief from the scholarship reductions is warranted and deserved."
Mitchell is too much the diplomat to suggest that was true the day the reductions were announced.