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Who learned their lesson from Penn State's NCAA sanctions?

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In November of 2011, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on forty criminal counts, including the sexual assault of eight boys over a fifteen-year period, one of them in the showers of Penn State’s football building.
Within just three months, Penn State’s trustees proceeded to fire their iconic coach, Joe Paterno; hire little-known New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien; and commission the Freeh Report, which concluded university leaders knew enough, but cared more about protecting the university’s image than Sandusky’s young victims. Then, Paterno died – but Penn State’s troubles were far from over.

Most Penn State insiders didn’t think the NCAA would punish the football program, and there was precedent on their side. NCAA officials usually steered clear of the most serious matters, leaving rapes and murders for legal authorities to handle, while they ruled on whether players are allowed to put cream cheese or jam on their free breakfast bagel. Letting the NCAA rule on a child rapist is tantamount to putting a meter reader in charge of a serial murder. They’re in way over their heads.
But the NCAA did act. Last summer, Penn State’s football players gathered to watch NCAA president Mark Emmert announce their punishments. One erased a wide swath of Penn State’s rich history, vacating all the victories from 1998 through 2011. The sanctions also threatened Penn State’s future: a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, and a drastic reduction in scholarships.

The NCAA said Penn State’s penalties were “greater than any other seen in NCAA history.” Most experts believed they were second only to the infamous “death penalty” delivered to Southern Methodist University.

Penn State’s new coach, Bill O’Brien, worried more about another ruling, which allowed Penn State players to transfer immediately, without penalty, while permitting other coaches to recruit them. That could amount a death sentence, by starvation.  

O’Brien spoke immediately to his shell- shocked squad. He said, “We’re not here to understand the rules. We’re here to follow them. It’s my obligation to tell you that you are free to go anywhere you want, with no penalties. However, if you stay, I promise you, you will never forget it… and you will still get a great education.’ ”

At Penn State, that promise is not hollow. Paterno had his blind spots, but how to run a clean program was not one of them. Even the Starbucks baristas know they can’t even give a Penn State player a free latte.

Within 24 hours, a hundred coaches from around the country converged on Penn State’s parking lot to lure players away. Some schools, the Penn State players knew, would offer money, women and more.

Amazingly, almost all of the players stayed -- then lost their first two games. But they rallied, and finished with a surprising 8-4 record, capped by an overtime victory over Wisconsin, the eventual Big Ten champions.

They survived the sanctions, and the season.

Emmert was probably as surprised as anyone. This week, the NCAA announced they were reducing Penn State’s penalties – though, predictably, for the wrong reasons.

The Penn State players’ stoic response to the sanctions turned the tide of public opinion -- and that’s what I believe turned the NCAA around. It is an organization without any guiding principles, save one: Do whatever is best for the NCAA, at that moment. That its decision also happens to be what’s best for Penn State’s student-athletes is merely a coincidence.

At the end of Penn State’s surprising season, one of their coaches told me he’d always remember that their kids knew how to handle the situation better than most of the adults.

Important lessons were learned – about honesty, responsibility and morality. Just not by the people who needed to learn them.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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