Penn State’s football team on Monday got out from under some of the severe sanctions imposed on it two years ago over the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal, learning the NCAA will allow it to complete in this year’s postseason and that all scholarships will return in 2015.
The surprise announcement, linked to progress the school has made reforming its athletics programs, moved the university a step farther away from the fallout from Sandusky, the former assistant coach convicted of sexual abuse of 10 boys, including acts inside university facilities.
The scandal badly tarnished what had been one of college sports’ most respected programs and led to charges of a criminal cover-up against former university administrators Graham Spanier, Gary Schultz and Tim Curley, whose cases are still pending.
Penn State had been halfway through a four-year postseason ban handed down during the summer of 2012. Some of the scholarships were restored earlier than expected a year ago.
The school still must pay a $60 million fine, 111 wins under former coach Joe Paterno plus one under Tom Bradley remain vacated and the school will remain under monitoring.
The decision by the NCAA’s Executive Committee followed a recommendation by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, whose second annual report as Penn State’s athletics integrity monitor concluded the university was in compliance with a 2012 agreement and consent decree.
“Senator Mitchell’s report and recommendations, along with the actions taken by the NCAA today, are a recognition of the hard work of many over the past two years to make Penn State a stronger institution,” said Penn State President Eric Barron.
Mitchell said the school had made progress toward implementing a new human resources system, “fostering an ethical culture” and improving security at its sports facilities. His own five-year oversight role, scheduled to continue to 2017, may end earlier as a result of the progress that has been made, he said.
Mitchell said his recommendation was focused on aspects of the penalties that affect student-athletes, many of whom stayed at Penn State despite the ability to transfer without penalty.
“In light of Penn State’s responsiveness to its obligations and the many improvements it has instituted, I believe these student-athletes should have the opportunity to play in the postseason should they earn it on the field this year,” Mitchell wrote.
His 58-page report said incidents involving the football team this year included only minor infractions.
In State College, junior kinesiology major Daniel Zambanini said seeing the news on a television screen gave him a moment of shock.
“The sanctions kind of held the Sandusky scandal like it was a big black cloud that hung over the university because every year, every time they mentioned Penn State, they mentioned the sanctions,” Zambanini said.
He said removal of the postseason ban “just takes that weight off our shoulders and you can kind of just be Penn State once more.”
Security risk analysis major Dylan O’Brien, a senior, said that after the last three years, a trip to a bowl game sounded appealing.
“It was a pretty dark time because it was only a couple months after we started school” as freshmen, O’Brien said. “A lot of people had second thoughts about being here but a lot of people stuck through it.”
The penalties against Penn State were unprecedented in many ways and, because of that, not well-received by many in college sports. While the NCAA cited lack of institutional control, Penn State’s missteps had nothing to do with competition and the areas that usually fall under the NCAA’s jurisdiction.
“The biggest problem I had was the effect on the student athletes in the program,” said former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, who worked in NCAA enforcement during the 1980s, including on the SMU football case that led to the program being given the death penalty. “They (Penn State’s players) weren’t involved in a program that was cheating against their rivals and now all of sudden they’re not able to participate in postseason.”
The NCAA cutting the penalties down is also unusual. Beebe and Mike Gillerano, who worked in NCAA enforcement during the 1970s and ’80s, said they were concerned the latest move would set another precedent.
“So what happens now when one of your old schools,” Gillerano said, referring to Beebe’s time in the Big 12, “gets wacked? ‘OK, we’ll take that penalty with the understanding that we will be model citizens and we will expect the treatment that Penn State got.'”
On Friday, the NCAA said in a Pennsylvania state court filing it is willing to let the state government control the $60 million fine Penn State is paying under the consent decree. The NCAA wants the judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by state officials seeking to enforce a 2013 state law that requires the money remain in the state.
If the judge agrees, the NCAA said it also will move to end a federal lawsuit against Gov. Tom Corbett and others that challenges that same law.
Penn State went 15-9 during the first two seasons of the sanctions under coach Bill O’Brien, who was hired to replace the late Paterno, who was fired not long after Sandusky, his former defensive coordinator, was charged. Paterno died in 2012.
O’Brien left for the Houston Texans of the NFL after last season and James Franklin was hired away from Vanderbilt to take his place.
Penn State is 2-0 this season. If the Nittany Lions win the East division, they will be eligible to play in the Big Ten championship game.
Franklin said the team appreciates the opportunity.
“This team plays for each other. We play for Penn State, our families, the former players, our students, alumni, fans and the community,” he said.
Scolforo reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.