“Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people,” NCAA President Mark Emmert declared in announcing the penalties.
The governing body of college sports shredded what was left of the Hall of Fame coach’s legacy — the sanctions cost Paterno 111 wins and his standing as the most successful coach in the history of big-time college football — while dealing a severe blow to the university’s gold-plated gridiron program.
The NCAA ordered Penn State to sit out the postseason for four years, slashed the number of scholarships it can award and placed football on probation, all of which will make it difficult for the Nittany Lions to compete at the sport’s highest level.
Raising the specter of an exodus of athletes, the NCAA said current or incoming football players at Penn State are free to immediately transfer and compete at another school.
For a university that always claimed to hold itself to a higher standard — for decades, Paterno preached “success with honor” — Monday’s announcement completed a stunning fall from grace.
Penn State meekly accepted its punishment, pledging to hold itself to high standards of honesty and integrity.
But Paterno’s family said in a statement that the sanctions “defame the legacy and contributions of a great coach and educator.” Echoing the complaints of many outraged and heartbroken Penn State fans, the family also criticized university leaders for accepting the punishment without insisting on a full investigation and hearing on the school’s handling of the sexual abuse allegations against former coaching assistant Jerry Sandusky.
“This is not a fair or thoughtful action; it is a panicked response to the public’s understandable revulsion at what Sandusky did,” the family said.
Emmert said the penalties reflect “the magnitude of these terrible acts” and also “ensure that Penn State will rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry.”
He said the NCAA considered imposing the “death penalty,” or a complete shutdown of the football program for a season or more, but decided to keep Penn State in the fold so that it could begin transforming a culture in which football played an outsized role. The NCAA also worried about the unintended consequences of a complete ban, he said.
“Suspension of the football program would bring with it significant unintended harm to many who had nothing to do with this case,” Emmert said. “The sanctions we have crafted are more focused and impactful than that blanket penalty.”
Sandusky, a former member of Paterno’s coaching staff, was found guilty in June of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years, sometimes on campus. An investigation commissioned by the school and released July 12 found that Paterno, who died of lung cancer in January at age 85, and three other top officials at Penn State concealed accusations against Sandusky to shield the school from bad publicity.
The sanctions came a day after the school took down a statue of Paterno that stood outside Beaver Stadium.
Gov. Tom Corbett expressed gratitude that Penn State escaped the death penalty, saying it would have had a “severe detrimental impact on the citizens of State College, Centre County and the entire commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
A drop-off in attendance and revenue could damage both the university, where the powerhouse football team is a moneymaker that subsidizes other sports, and the region as a whole, where Saturday afternoon football at Penn State is an important part of the economy.
But given Penn State’s famously ardent fans and generous benefactors, the precise economic impact on Penn State and Happy Valley, as the surrounding area is known, remains unclear.
First-year coach Bill O’Brien, who was hired to replace Paterno, will have the daunting task of luring new recruits while trying to keep current players from fleeing the program. Star players such as tailback Silas Redd and linebacker Gerald Hodges are now essentially free agents.
“I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead,” O’Brien said. “But I am committed for the long term to Penn State and our student athletes.”