All Hail JoePa!

Penn State's Football Worship Is Bowl Eligible

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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There's revelry in State College, Pennsylvania, once again. But it's nothing to celebrate.

The NCAA says it will be lifting the sanctions against the Penn State football team, restoring its bowl eligibility and allowing the university to offer a full complement of scholarships next year. In 2012, the NCAA handed down tough penalties in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The program was fined $60 million, saw its scholarships reduced, and was banned from the postseason for four years.

The new decision came on the recommendation of former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, who had been appointed to monitor the athletics department and cited "significant strides" in reforming it. These include putting in place long-term changes detailed in the 2012 report from former Federal Bureau of Investigation director Louis Freeh, a damning account of the abuse scandal and its coordinated, university- and city-wide cover-up.

Some are interpreting the NCAA's agreement to roll back the punishment as a concession that it overreached in its initial discipline. Others feel that the football implications pale in comparison to the criminal, and that the jurisdiction for discipline lay outside the NCAA's scope and in the wheelhouse of law enforcement. (There is some validity to that viewpoint in general: the NCAA often likes to wield its power just to show it can.)

The announcement goes a long way to correcting one of the problems many had with the initial discipline: It unfairly punished the athletes for their coaches' and administrators' crimes. While entering or returning players were able to keep their scholarships and remain students, or were free to transfer without restriction, the maximum allowance of scholarships for incoming players was reduced to 15 from from 25 during the four-year penalty period. No Penn State athlete had anything to do with the Sandusky scandal, yet the players still bore much of the punishment for the failures of their leadership. It's actually in keeping with an NCAA whose convoluted transfer rules limit player choice and mobility regardless of major changes in coaching and circumstance. The students always take the hit.

That said, the higher purpose of sanctioning Penn State's program went far beyond the idea of due punishment for a horrible crime. It was supposed to completely change a culture all too ready to look the other way and allow this to happen in the name of football.

"[The penalties] reflect the magnitude of these terrible acts, but also assure Penn State will rebuild an athletic culture that went horribly awry," NCAA president Mark Emmert said in 2012. The heart of the scandal, he said, was a failed culture of leadership at a program that was "too big to fail, indeed, too big to even challenge."

Whatever strides Mitchell and the NCAA believe the university has made in two years, it's clear that very little about the culture has changed. The canonization of former coach Joe Paterno continues unabated, as does the tendency of "Penn State Truthers" to pick apart the Freeh report. I guess you can't fault the thousands who rallied in support of their school following the announcement, but you should be disturbed by the cult mentality that still calls for the resurrection of Paterno's statue.

It's a shame this needs saying, but bowl games are really the least important part of of this affair. Don't let football make you overlook those abused boys, as the university and town did for so long. As one victim's lawyer said Wednesday, "They are less concerned with bowl games and scholarships than they are with trying to get their lives back on track."

In State College, football is a religion; like any religion, it has the power to radicalize. A culture in which football is king of kings caused everyone at the time -- from Joe Paterno to Athletic Director Tim Curley to Penn State President Graham Spanier to local officials -- to pass the buck to the next highest link in the chain of command and then wash their hands of any further responsibility. Two years later, that culture persists, and now it is bowl eligible.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net