The Nittany Lions scored big Monday as the NCAA accepted recommendations from George Mitchell’s latest report on Penn State’s progress, restoring postseason play this year and scholarships next year.
In his second annual report, issued Monday, former U.S. senator Mitchell, the independent monitor overseeing Penn State’s athletics integrity agreement with the NCAA, lauded the university’s progress since the Jerry Sandusky scandal and made recommendations to further roll back the unprecedented sanctions levied by the NCAA.
“Penn State has continued to fully comply with the AIA and has continued its commitment to reform,” Mitchell said. “I am therefore once again recommending reductions in the Consent Decree’s sanctions affecting student-athletes. First, I recommend that the NCAA restore Penn State’s bowl eligibility for the 2014-15 football season. Second, I recommend that the NCAA restore Penn State’s football grants-in-aid to the maximum number permitted under NCAA regulations for the 2015-16 football season.”
Mitchell and his law firm, DLA Piper, made the announcement Monday, releasing a report describing Penn State’s efforts to continue work on its obligations under the athletic integrity agreement and the consent decree.
“Through the second year of the consent decree, Penn State has not wavered in its commitment to fulfilling the requirements of the AIA and to implementing the recommendations made in the Freeh report.” Mitchell said. “The initiatives undertaken in the first year have begun to take root as a result of Penn State’s continuing focus on these reforms.”
He pointed to accomplishments such as “a wholly new and comprehensive compliance program that places oversight of athletics compliance outside of the athletics department and ensures direct access to the university’s senior leadership and board of trustees.”
The hiring of Sandy Barbour as athletic director was noted, as well as training of “covered persons” in compliance and certification of the department’s “efforts to comply” with NCAA and Big Ten regulations. Mitchell also singled out President Eric Barron’s Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Task Force and a commitment to creating 12 ethics-related appointments in multiple disciplines over the next three years.”
Mitchell intimated at recommending an end to the oversight in the near future.
“Should Penn State continue its current course of progress during this upcoming third year, I will in my next annual report consider recommending that the NCAA and Big Ten conclude the monitorship substantially earlier than scheduled,” he said. The monitoring period was set at five years originally, with the understanding that it could be shortened if successful.
“Earlier today, I presented my report and recommendations to the Big Ten Conference and the NCAA executive committee and Division I board of directors. I am pleased that they accepted my report and adopted my recommendations,” Mitchell concluded.
Last year, it took three weeks to announce the rollbacks of scholarships, but the NCAA wasted no time in announcing its acceptance of Mitchell’s recommendations Monday.
“Due to Penn State University’s significant progress toward ensuring its athletics department functions with integrity, the NCAA Executive Committee today eliminated the school’s postseason ban, effective immediately, and will return the full complement of football scholarships in 2015-16,” the organization said in a statement.
“Penn State’s commitment to the integrity of its athletics department and its progress toward meeting the requirements of the consent decree are clear,” said Northern Arizona President Rita Hartung Cheng. She chaired the executive committee meeting Monday. “We thank Sen. Mitchell for his meticulous and exhaustive work over the past two years. Mitchell’s efforts and the dedication of Penn State officials made today’s decisions possible.”
The administration issued statements heralding the report and the NCAA response without actually mentioning much about the bowl games or scholarships, speaking of the good news in very general terms and spending more public relations capital on the work that garnered Mitchell’s good graces.
“Sen. 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. This is welcome news for the university community, particularly for our current and future student-athletes,” said Penn State President Eric Barron. “We look forward to continuing to work with Sen. Mitchell.”
The board echoed his sentiments.
“This report is a welcome acknowledgment of the university’s efforts,” trustees Chairman Keith Masser said. “Such a massive undertaking has made Penn State a national model in an array of university functions — including compliance, safety and security.”
Even Barbour looked back on the work done rather than ahead to what a possible winning season could mean.
“I am very happy for coach Franklin, the coaches and staff and most importantly, our outstanding football student-athletes,” she said. “I am gratified for the student-athletes who have remained resilient, committed and dedicated to Penn State during the past three years.”
But trustee Anthony Lubrano stopped short of fully praising the decision.
“Today's announcement should come as no surprise to Penn Staters,” Lubrano said in an email to the CDT. “We have always been a model of athletics integrity. We did not need to pay George Mitchell to tell us so.”
He said he had mixed emotions.
“On the one hand, I am happy for our student-athletes that have been unjustly penalized by the NCAA,” he said.
“On the other hand, I am saddened by the fact that the NCAA has not reversed all of the penalties that they had no legal right to impose in the first place.”
The rollback of sanctions does not diminish the financial penalty. Not only is Penn State still paying the $60 million in fines levied, but the Big Ten clarified other aspects in its statement.
Although the Big Ten is permitting Penn State to participate in the conference championship game if the Nittany Lions qualify, “the official censure, five-year probation and monetary fine equal to Penn State’s Big Ten bowl revenue share during the probationary period initially imposed by the Big Ten (Council of Presidents and Chancellors)” remains in effect. That means that the school will be able to participate in a bowl game this season, but not take home a paycheck for it.
But perhaps the most meaningful reaction would be that of those who represent victims of sexual violence.
“I’d be hard pressed to think of a university who has done more or worked harder. And perhaps, more importantly, I know that Penn State is committed to continuing the work to make the university a safer place for everyone. While there is still much work to be done, it is appropriate to commend the university for staying focused on what is important — making Penn State a place of safety, equality and respect for everyone,” said Anne Ard, executive director of the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.