Penn State Football Bowl Ban Is Lifted by NCAA Two Years Early

The Pennsylvania State University football team’s bowl ban was lifted two years early as the National Collegiate Athletic Association reduced sanctions tied to the child sex-abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky.

Penn State is eligible to play in the Big Ten conference championship as well as a bowl game this season and gets back its full complement of 85 football scholarships in 2015-16.

The Nittany Lions were banned from competing in bowl games the past two years as part of the 2012 penalties imposed by the NCAA in the aftermath of the abuse scandal involving Sandusky, a former assistant coach. The NCAA said the school, which was also fined $60 million, has made significant progress toward ensuring its athletic department functions with integrity.

“Penn State has made remarkable progress over the past year,” University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides, who is a member of the NCAA’s Division I board, said in a statement. Pastides added that yesterday’s decision “allows both the university and the association to continue to move toward a common goal of ensuring that educating, nurturing and protecting young people is a top priority.”

Other penalties didn’t change for the school in State College, Pennsylvania. The $60 million fine, vacating of wins from 1998 through 2011 and five-year probation originally imposed by the NCAA remain in effect, as does the monetary fine equal to Penn State’s share of Big Ten bowl revenue during that period. The NCAA said yesterday in a court filing that it will let the state of Pennsylvania use the $60 million for an endowment to provide aid to survivors of child sexual abuse, rather than using the money nationally as the governing body of college sports contemplated in its initial agreement.

Coach ‘Appreciative’

Penn State first-year football coach James Franklin said the team is “appreciative of the opportunities” the NCAA and Big Ten have provided. The Nittany Lions are off to a 2-0 start this season under Franklin, who was hired from Vanderbilt in January after Bill O’Brien left to become coach of the National Football League’s Houston Texans.

While ineligible to play in a bowl the past two seasons, Penn State had records of 8-4 and 7-5 under O’Brien, whose tenure followed a 46-year coaching run by Joe Paterno that included two national championships.

“I am gratified for the student-athletes who have remained resilient, committed and dedicated to Penn State during the past three years,” Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said in a statement.

Mitchell’s Recommendations

Yesterday’s decision follows recommendations in the latest report from former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, an independent oversight monitor for Penn State athletics. Mitchell briefed the NCAA’s executive committee, Division I board of directors and presidents from the Big Ten schools on his work and Penn State’s efforts before the vote to lift the sanctions.

Dan Beebe, a former commissioner of the Big 12 and Ohio Valley conferences, said rescinding the bowl ban appears to be an acknowledgment of the NCAA’s overreach with the original sanctions. He also said it sets a dangerous precedent.

“Now, in the regular enforcement process, when there’s a decision made by the NCAA, what’s to prevent that institution that’s served two years of a penalty from coming back and saying, ’Hey, we’ve been good citizens, we put a model program in effect, you need to remove the other two years of our penalty,” Beebe said in an interview.

Original Sanctions

The NCAA sanctioned Penn State after a July 2012 report by former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh said top school officials failed to protect children from Sandusky. The former coach, who retired in 1999, was sentenced to at least 30 years in prison for abusing boys and the scandal led to the firings of Paterno, who died in January 2012, and university President Graham Spanier.

The initial punishment called for the NCAA to review the sanctions after two years.

The NCAA revisited some earlier than that, giving back five football scholarships in September 2013 after Mitchell noted the school’s progress. He suggested the modifications at that time focus on scholarships because that would most directly affect the athletes.

Paterno’s son, Scott, said in a statement yesterday that the NCAA’s latest decision in lifting the bowl ban is “one more step in correcting the unjust and irresponsible penalties” imposed on the university that were based on an “incomplete and over-hyped report” by Freeh.

‘Recklessly Promoted’

“In response to the report, which was recklessly promoted to the media as complete and accurate, the University Board of Trustees and the NCAA panicked and imposed unprecedented penalties and engaged in an active campaign to smear the reputations of numerous individuals,” Scott Paterno said. “The sad fact is they took a terrible situation and made it worse. We have always supported a full, fair and open review of the facts. We remain committed to that effort.”

The football team opened its season with a 26-24 win against Central Florida in Ireland on Aug. 30 and then beat Akron 21-3 at home three days ago. The Nittany Lions next play at Rutgers University in their Big Ten opener on Sept. 13.

“Our student-athletes and our entire student body are to be commended for their resiliency and spirit during a challenging time,” Penn State President Eric Barron said. “We also are grateful for the dedication and commitment to success on and off the field of our football student-athletes.”

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