We applaud Penn State for the effort and commitment that led to the announcement Tuesday that the NCAA is easing some sanctions against the university.
This is a moment of positive reinforcement as Penn State moves forward with enacting meaningful reforms and adopting important policy changes.
But this “good news” should not be mistaken for license to forget the lessons of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, that terrible crimes occurred in our community and that we all have a responsibility to protect those around us.
Nor is the NCAA’s decision an indicator that Penn State’s work is nearing completion.
That work can never end.
The easing of sanctions is merely a show of faith in the leadership of Penn State President Rodney Erickson and his team at all levels, from administrators to faculty to workers, coaches and certainly students and student-athletes.
The NCAA said it will return Penn State to its full allotment of football scholarships earlier than expected, and NCAA leaders expressed a willingness to consider lifting Penn State’s postseason ban at some point, if progress continues.
Penn State football coach Bill O’Brien and his staff and team have done a remarkable job despite the loss of those scholarships and without the goal of a postseason bowl trip to drive them.
O’Brien called his players “a resilient group of young men who are able to look ahead, focus and overcome adversity.”
Penn State students have likewise proved “resilient” in their support of the university and its programs, and their own academic pursuits. “Resilient” would also describe staff in the Penn State athletics department and employees elsewhere across the local campus and the university system, who have embraced changes necessitated by the scandal.
Erickson said the announcement “recognizes the significant efforts over the past year to make Penn State a safer, stronger institution.”
The list of reforms Penn State has enacted includes the training of staff in recognizing and reporting potential child abuse and the hiring of individuals to oversee reporting of incidents of crime. Penn State adopted an athletics integrity policy and hired a director to oversee that program. The board of trustees adopted numerous governance changes, with more on the way, while the university has met nearly all of the Freeh report’s recommendations.
Penn State also worked to reach settlements with Sandusky’s victims.
“As we promised throughout this process,” Erickson said, “we are committed to continuing to improve all of our policies, procedures and actions.”
Just as the severe sanctions against Penn State connected with the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case were unprecedented, NCAA President Mark Emmert said reducing penalties also was an unprecedented step.
The decision by the NCAA executive committee came at the recommendation of sanctions monitor and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who recently offered a glowing assessment of Penn State’s progress a year into the penalties prompted by the findings in the Louis Freeh report.
“While there is more work to be done, Penn State has clearly demonstrated its commitment to restoring integrity in its athletics program,” Mitchell said in a statement Tuesday. “The university has substantially completed the initial implementation of all the Freeh report recommendations and its obligations to the athletics integrity agreement, so relief from the scholarship reductions is warranted and deserved.”
Emmert called the softening of sanctions “an important recognition of Penn State’s progress.”
The flood of kind words is in stark contrast to the language we heard last summer, when the Freeh report accused Penn State leaders of covering up Sandusky’s crimes against children, and when the NCAA levied its severe penalties.
Despite this upbeat moment, all involved would be well-served to remember the heart-wrenching testimony of the victims during the Sandusky abuse trial, the images of the former assistant coach leaving Centre County courthouse in handcuffs, the shock that was felt when the Freeh findings were released and when the sanctions were announced.
This must be a moment of somber reflection, as Penn State whispers “thanks” for the small reversal of fortune, then gets on with the business of forging a better future.