Did the NCAA go too far?

Last night, I was talking to a friend (and a fellow fan of college football) about the scandal and aftermath at Penn State, and how the NCAA handled it. We both agreed that the NCAA was too harsh.

Think about it: Ohio State, USC, Miami, and many other schools have been investigated by the NCAA, and all have gotten a slap on the wrist. Those schools are still alive and well and still have bragging rights on the football field. Meanwhile, it’s obvious that it will take years, maybe even decades, for Penn State to heal as a football program and a community.

What happened at Penn State was a tragedy – an unprecedented tragedy. But should the NCAA really have gotten as involved as it did? It’s not like there was rampant substance abuse, massive recruiting violations, or money-laundering. This all has to do with one guy – former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky – who sexually abused boys and used Penn State facilities to do it.

The late Hall of Fame coach Joe Paterno has come under intense scrutiny of how he handled the Sandusky fiasco. And yes, JoePa made some very poor decisions toward the end of his career. But in a letter written only a few weeks before his death from lung cancer, Paterno declared that the scandal was not a football scandal, and it shouldn’t be treated as such by the NCAA. In other interviews before his death, Paterno admitted that he should have done more to stop the situation.

To some extent, I agree with Paterno. This was a horrible tragedy that never should have happened, but it’s not a football issue, no matter how you slice it. Yes, it happened under the watch of Penn State’s athletic department. Yes, it involved several of the football program’s assistants, all the way up to Paterno himself. But is this a child abuse scandal or a football scandal? I’m inclined to think that this has to do with child abuse.

Another thing the NCAA failed to consider is the current situation of the football players at Penn State. These kids worked their tails off in high school and were honored to continue their playing careers (and get a full ride scholarship) at Penn State, one of the nation’s most historic programs. And then, within the space of less than a year, their recruiter and iconic head coach dies, a child abuse scandal envelopes the entire university, and the NCAA slams the gavel on what could be the end of Nittany Lion football as we know it.

Granted, almost 90% of the current roster stayed after the NCAA announced its sanctions. But these kids always dreamed of playing in bowl games, winning on national TV, and enjoying their college football experience. Plus, it’s unlikely that any of them saw the Sandusky scandal coming when they committed to play for Penn State. And now, it’s all gone. New head coach Bill O’Brien has done a remarkable job of keeping his players focused and willing to take on this challenge, but it’s gonna be an uphill struggle from now on.

Penn State still lives on, but the university community will never be the same. Yes, changes needed to be made – if anything, this fiasco shows how a football-first culture can destroy a community. But the NCAA shouldn’t have given such a harsh sentence on an entire football team for the perverse actions of one man.

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