Think of it as time off for good behavior, just not a full pardon.
On Monday, the NCAA set Penn State free from part of a stiff sentence — one that enraged Nittany Lion football fans — that was handed down two years ago to punish the university for its role in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Responding immediately to former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell’s report lauding the university for implementing reforms, the NCAA returned the Nittany Lions to postseason play, making them eligible for a bowl game this season and restoring the university’s full allotment of scholarships for the 2015-16 season.
The clemency was deserved.
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Under the consent decree Penn State signed in 2012, the university received a four-year bowl ban, had its scholarships reduced, was slapped with $60 million in fines and had 111 victories taken from its record.
Now, some of those chains have fallen aside.
As Mitchell noted, Penn State has made a concerted effort to reform its administration and policies toward preventing and responding to sexual assault. It has enacted all but one of the 119 recommendations made in 2012 by the controversial Freeh report in a scathing indictment of the university’s handling of Sandusky’s crimes against boys, one of which reportedly took place on campus.
Among the changes, Penn State hired a youth programs compliance officer and a person to oversee child protection efforts and strengthened its Clery Act compliance, the federal requirement to report sex crimes that occur on campus.
It also trained about 30,000 workers, students and volunteers in recognizing and reporting abuse, in a community partnership commended by Mitchell in his first progress report a year ago.
By many accounts, Penn State has become a model for other universities trying to improve the safety and integrity of their campuses.
Regardless of whether the original punishments were just — still a festering sore point among alumni and other fans — the university did its hard time and grew.
The NCAA was right to grant some amnesty.
Its decision, perhaps given the necessary cover by the Mitchell report, also finally spared the innocent.
Today’s coaches and players bear no responsibility for any administrative sins committed more than a decade ago. Nor does a generation of student fans, who were barely in elementary school when Sandusky’s and Penn State’s misdeeds happened.
That was then, and this is now. Penn State is two head coaches past Joe Paterno, two presidents past Graham Spanier, two athletic directors past Tim Curley — a new era worthy of a fresh start.
To be sure, Penn State didn’t get the full commutation. It’s still on the hook for the $60 million. A five-year prohibition against receiving any communal Big Ten bowl money remains in effect.
None of the wins vacated from Paterno’s era — to many a gratuitous stick in Penn State’s eye by the NCAA — will be coming back any time soon.
But because Penn State made strides in rehabilitation, though it may never be completely forgiven by some, it earned a reduced sentence. Because it did the right thing, so did the NCAA.