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October 11, 2012Of all the inconceivable and malicious sanctions imposed on Penn State by the NCAA, the vacating of the football team's victories from 1998 through 2011 is the most petty, personal and spiteful.
NCAA president Mark Emmert and his sanctimonious colleagues had to reach deep into their bag of animus toward Joe Paterno to come up with that gem. Not even SMU's infamous death penalty of 1987 included the vacating of victories.
The NCAA's official reasoning for that penalty is not found in the nine-page consent decree, whose findings, conclusions and sanctions are based on the university's own independent - and highly controversial - investigation by Louis Freeh's consulting group. To say that the Freeh report is severely flawed is an understatement, but it is clear that the quick acceptance of the report by the board of trustees gave an overeager Emmert all the pretext he needed to penalize Penn State football back to the Stone Age.
Whether all or some of the unprecedented sanctions were justified, fair or legal under the NCAA's nebulous "institutional control" authority will be a matter of debate for years. Although the vacating of the victories is least damaging to the future of Penn State football, it is the most disparaging to the proud history of the Nittany Lions and to all the great players of the past who made it happen without cheating or breaking the rules. It is also one of the most puzzling of the penalties - unless Emmert and the other NCAA officials had something in mind besides Sandusky's victims and the still-unproven allegations of a 14-year coverup involving Paterno, president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Schultz and athletic director Tim Curley.
On page 5 of the consent decree, item No. 5 of the seven listed under "Punitive Component" states: "Vacation of wins since 1998. The NCAA vacates all wins of the Penn State football team from 1998 to 2011. The career record of Coach 'Joe' Paterno will reflect the vacated records."
In Emmert's short news conference on July 22 announcing the sanctions, there was an audible gasp when he read that part of the consent decree. A few minutes later, reporter Rosemary Connors of WCAU-TV in Philadelphia asked Emmert why 1998 was chosen for this sanction.
"Well, obviously, the 1998 date was selected because that's when the first reported incidence of abuse occurred and the failure to respond appropriately began," Emmert said. "And that was the point of time from which one can make an argument, of course, that the failures began inside the institution. So, it seemed to both me and the [NCAA] Executive Committee that this was the appropriate beginning date. Again, I'll leave what it says about individuals to others to speculate on. The university's failure in this case began at that point in time, and that's why that date was selected."
Emmert wants to avoid speculating, yet that is precisely what he and Freeh's committee did in unequivocally stating that the 1998 incident was not handled properly and instigated the alleged coverup that followed.
The 1998 investigation of Sandusky showering with a boy is the benchmark for Freeh's many disingenuous and distorted findings, and the NCAA simply mirrored Freeh in using that episode for all the pernicious sanctions against Penn State.
What doesn't seem to matter to Freeh or the NCAA is that the incident was investigated by the Penn State Police, the Department of Public Welfare, and Centre County Child and Youth Services before District Attorney Ray Gricar declined to press charges for reasons that have not been revealed. Furthermore, the truth about the next report, in 2001, of Sandusky showering with a boy is still unresolved and continues to be part of the legal process. It wasn't until late in 2008 that a third incident sparked the investigation that eventually led to Sandusky's arrest and conviction. So Emmert's timeline is off-base.
However, the fundamental question is this: Why did Emmert and his Executive Committee unanimously believe that vacating 112 football victories since 1998 - or even the wins from 2001 or 2008 - was so vital that the measure needed to be included with the six other sanctions? Does the punishment even fit the supposed crime?
NCAA policy dictates that the vacating of victories is only to be done when a team is deemed to have received a competitive advantage by breaking rules. The penalty had been applied 41 times previously in all divisions of NCAA football for major infractions according to a document on NCAA legislative action found on the organization's website. Among the colleges that have been forced to vacate victories are four from Division II, including Cheyney, as well as Division III Hobart.
Penn State now heads the list of 11 programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision to have wins vacated. Alabama is a distant second, with 29 vacated wins in four seasons: 1993, 2005, 2006 and 2007.
Certainly, when Emmert and the NCAA Executive Committee decided on this particular penalty, they didn't care that the players on those teams had never broken any eligibility rule and that almost all of them had graduated. What's more, few of them had even met Sandusky. Nor did Emmert and company care that Penn State was previously one of fewer than two dozen schools that had never had a major NCAA infraction in any sport and that the football team had been one of the leaders in graduating its players - in the 80 percent range by the NCAA's own statistics in the past decade.
So, why vacate the victories? ESPN's Don Van Natta Jr. summed it up succinctly in covering Emmert's news conference: "The erasure of Penn State's wins over 14 years was seen as a direct censure of Paterno."
Instead of being recognized as the winningest coach in major college football with 409 victories, Paterno is now fifth following the vacating of 111 wins. Additionally, he is all the way down to 12th on the list of all-time coaching victories in all divisions.
Emmert and the 17 other members of the NCAA Executive Committee can claim all they want that the vacating of Paterno's victories was based, like the other sanctions, on the lack of institutional control. They did that in the first sentence of the news release announcing the punishments: "By perpetuating a 'football first' culture that ultimately enabled serial child sexual abuse to occur, the Pennsylvania State University leadership failed to value and uphold institutional integrity, resulting in a breach of the NCAA constitution and rules."
Speculation is what Freeh and Emmert do best, so here's my speculation: This was a very personal attack on Paterno and his legacy, engineered by Emmert and others inside and outside the NCAA because of private and professional resentments, jealousies and past confrontations with Paterno, who had often attacked the integrity of the NCAA and its rules and policies.
Paterno was the bright beacon shining a light on the hypocrisy within college football - everything from the cheating on the field and in academics to the financial greed spurred by the plethora of postseason bowl games to the inconsistent and frequent penalties on individual players for fanciful violations of the NCAA's many trivial regulations.
Vacating those 111 victories was the NCAA's way of desecrating Paterno's grave. I doubt that it would have had the courage to do it to his face.
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