The NCAA's tough Penn State penalties still ring hollow

Here is a sneak preview of our Tuesday editorial on the NCAA's sanctions against the Penn State football program.

Viewed against precedent, the NCAA’s sanctions against the Penn State football program are tough and unflinching:

• A $60 million fine — commensurate with a year’s worth of revenue for the lucrative and once-revered football program — will go into an endowment to fund child sex abuse prevention services.

• Reductions in football scholarships will begin in 2013. By 2014, Penn State will be allowed to offer no more than 65 scholarships, while other schools can award 85 — a penalty that could have lingering effects on the program long past its four-year sentence.

• Penn State agrees to a four-year ban from postseason bowl appearances — crucial to a football program’s national profile and to its revenue stream.

• Reasonably enough, the NCAA will allow Penn State players, who had nothing to do with the sex abuse scandal, to leave the hobbled program. They will be allowed to transfer and play immediately at another school, instead of sitting out a season, as is standard.

• Penn State will vacate 112 football wins dating back to 1998, a date that coincides with the university’s insidious and institutional coverup of complaints of pedophilia. Vacating victories may be little more than symbolic, but it sufficiently rewrites the record books to cost longtime Penn State coach Joe Paterno the title of college football’s winningest coach.

The penalties, announced Monday, go well beyond the norm for programs that break recruiting rules or violate other NCAA guidelines.

Which may explain why these penalties, heavy as they are, were also destined to ring hollow.

The Penn State scandal wasn’t just another episode of recruiting gone rogue. Young children were victimized and violated — a pattern of criminal predatory behavior that resonated with many people who couldn’t care less about college sports or NCAA rules violations. While former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted in June on 45 counts of sex abuse, and is likely to spend the rest of his life behind bars, the NCAA had its one chance to punish the institution that looked the other way, that placed winning and public image ahead of all else.

No, Monday’s penalties don’t feel proportional. But what would?

The NCAA ruled out the so-called “death penalty” — a suspension of the football program, lasting a year or longer. This punishment may have appeased those who were left wanting more from the NCAA. But it would have come far too late to punish the figures at the heart of this sad scandal of secrecy, including Paterno, who was fired in November, two months before dying of lung cancer.

Indeed, Monday’s sanctions may still punish people who had nothing to do with this scandal. For example, the NCAA will specifically not allow Penn State to pay its $60 million fine by curtailing other athletic scholarships or cutting other intercollegiate sports programs. But there is no guarantee that the fines won’t affect academics, the core function of a university.

The true measure of Monday’s sanctions won’t be known for years, long after fines are paid and scholarships are restored. Will the NCAA’s actions serve as adequate deterrent, preventing other schools from abandoning honesty and decency in the name of on-the-field success? Said NCAA President Mark Emmert Monday: “Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people.”

We can only hope. But we’ll never know.