Have Mercy: Penn State Has Ached Enough

How long is Penn State supposed to suffer? Forever? Why should the future mechanism of a university system, including football players and other students who weren’t yet born when Jerry Sandusky was sexually assaulting young males, continue to be punished when a sick predator is locked away for life, Joe Paterno is dead and every other school official involved in the complicity and cover-up is long gone?

Hasn’t Penn State already experienced its death penalty, its shame, its permanent ignominy? Can’t we let Happy Valley try to be happy again?

The time has arrived to have mercy on a university that, amid intense external and internal scrutiny, has taken corrective measures to change the football culture after the Sandusky molestation scandal. What a shock to see the NCAA, weakened in its current chaotic condition and bowing to pressure from a powerful and politically minded Big Ten commissioner, suddenly loosen its vice grip and recognize Penn State’s institutional strides. The governing body announced that it gradually will restore the football scholarships reduced last year in what, undeniably, was a cruel overreach. Some folks today are disgusted about this turnabout.

I’m pleased by it.

Can’t you see how the NCAA overreacted? In addition to a four-year postseason ban, a $60 million fine and the elimination of 111 Paterno-coached victories, it had limited annual scholarships from 25 to 15, doing everything in its power to cripple the program for the long term. But a sense of fairness has prevailed, with the NCAA agreeing to lift a 65-scholarship cap and allow the program 75 scholarships next year, 80 in 2015 and the full boat of 85 in 2016. Never will NCAA president Mark Emmert admit to his mistake: piling on, as a way of reminding people that his organization could exert immense clout beyond the Sandusky legal process. However he explains it away, by removing his foot from Penn State’s neck, Emmert has given the program a chance to proceed in a normal mode and perhaps, at some point, also have its postseason ban reduced. “The executive committee’s decision to restore football scholarship opportunities for more student-athletes at Penn State is an important recognition of the university’s progress — and one I know it was pleased to make,” Emmert said.

Pleased to make? That’s a load of you know what. In truth, as reported by Si.com, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany pounced on Emmert’s deepening public-relations problems in a crisis-mired NCAA. Delany pushed hard for leniency for his member school, and Emmert relented — the latest example of the once-pompous-and-almighty governing body bowing down, as we saw in the wrist slap given to Johnny Manziel in his pay-for-autographs scandal. “Jim Delany is a terrific commissioner,” Dave Joyner, the Penn State athletic director, told SI.com. “It’s an important day. A very, very important day. It’s a very important day for us at Penn State and particularly for our student-athletes. It’s really something that will help them be more successful.”

I keep hearing angry media voices in recent hours, somehow arguing against mercy. Rather than focus on the innocent kids who are trying to move on at Penn State, far detached from a despicable bastard, they want the school’s football “brand” to be punished forevermore. Uh, that was the old Penn State. That was Paterno, who enabled Sandusky’s horrific crimes because of loyalty and old-man ignorance.

This is a new Penn State. Why can’t we acknowledge that and let the place carry on without Sandusky’s shackles?

Remember George MItchell, the former U.S. senator appointed years ago by commissioner Bud Selig to investigate Major League Baseball’s performance-enhancing-drugs crisis — and lay out all the gruesome details in the Mitchell Report? Penn State hired him as its “athletics integrity monitor” to oversee the dramatic changes as proposed by former FBI director Louis Freeh, who headed up the university’s Sandusky investigation. Mitchell recommended a measure of relief.

“Penn State has consistently demonstrated a strong commitment to fulfilling the requirements of the athletics integrity commitment,” Mitchell told the media in a conference call. “The amount of time, energy and resources devoted to these efforts have been notable.

“This was a positive response to positive action, and as to the future, we’ll have to make judgments in the future. (Restoring scholarships) is the mechanism most directly targeted to student-athletes. I felt it was an appropriate place to provide the relief.”

The NCAA agreed, with a shove.

Now all eyes turn to coach Bill O’Brien, who deserves a peace-and-love medal for assuming a mind-numbing challenge, cleaning up the debris and pointing Penn State forward. Now that the program has scholarship relief for the next head coach, it wouldn’t be surprising if O’Brien accepted an NFL head-coaching job soon after turning down opportunities last winter. If he leaves, no one should begrudge the Bill Belichick protege. His work in State College has been brilliant.

“We’re happy right now for our players,” O’Brien said after the news broke. “They’ve proven themselves to be a resilient group of young men who are able to look ahead, focus and overcome adversity.

“We have to keep doing what we’re doing, which is working extremely hard to do what’s right. When the (scholarship) rules changed a little bit, we adapted to those rules. The rules now are we can sign a few more guys and can get back to 85 scholarships a little bit sooner. We can’t go to a bowl or compete for a championship, but we definitely can get more on an even playing field numbers-wise, and that’s what we’re concentrating on as a staff.”

For the first time in what seems eons, everyone actually seems happy today in Happy Valley. Everyone, that is, but Jay Paterno. Still angry about how the NCAA punished Penn State and his father, he wrote on his Twitter feed: “NCAA gives back SOME PSU scholarships? Why not ALL? ANY football sanctions are still an affront to the truth.”

He should let go, too. The sun is beginning to shine.