The NCAA will restore the scholarships Penn State lost in the crushing sanctions from the Jerry Sandusky scandal because, the organization said Sept. 24, it recognizes that the university has pushed ahead with "significant momentum" to make sweeping changes to the way it runs.
Penn State's football team will see five scholarships added back each year starting in 2014-15, with the full complement of 85 scholarships restored for 2016-17, NCAA officials said in announcing the modification to the sanctions. As unprecedented as the crippling sanctions were when they were imposed on Penn State, the easing up is perhaps just as unprecedented because the NCAA has never reduced a penalty.
The NCAA's executive committee unanimously approved giving back the scholarships after a recommendation from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who was appointed by the NCAA to oversee Penn State's progress in adopting a number of reforms to enhance its security, ethics, governance and compliance structure. NCAA officials said they took up the recommendation because the restored scholarships would benefit student-athletes.
Mitchell, who said he'd been given unfettered access to documentation and employees, praised Penn State's efforts in the first yearly progress report, which was issued earlier this month, and many in the Penn State community were hopeful that Mitchell's positive progress report would pave the way for the NCAA to have a change of heart.
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Under the terms of the NCAA's consent decree, Penn State was required to adopt all of the 119 recommendations in former FBI director Louis Freeh's report, and the university put in place all but a few. For instance, the Freeh recommendations include requiring background checks on new employees, restricting access to athletics facilities and the hiring of a staff member to ensure the university complies with federal crime-reporting requirements.
The university also had followed the terms of an athletics integrity agreement, which lays out specific requirements for the athletics department to establish integrity protocols.
In a conference call with reporters Sept. 24, Mitchell said Penn State had made a "good-faith effort to embrace and adopt the changes needed to enhance its future."
"While there is more work to be done, Penn State has clearly demonstrated its commitment to restoring integrity in its athletics program," Mitchell said. "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."
NCAA President Mark Emmert said the move to ease up on the scholarship reduction was an "important recognition of the university's progress." When asked during a conference with reporters whether Emmert still believed Penn State had a football-first culture, Emmert did not directly answer, but he noted the university's progress was a "strong indicator of the seriousness" leaders here considered the task.
The NCAA will also consider rescinding the postseason bowl ban if Penn State continues to show progress, officials said. That would be an incentive for Penn State to continue its work, said Lou Anna Simon, the chairwoman of the NCAA's executive committee and the president of Michigan State University.
There was no word about whether the other sanctions could be included, such as the $60 million fine and the erasing of 112 victories from the history books.
Penn State leaders were thankful for the NCAA's decision.
"This news is certainly welcome to our university community, particularly the student-athletes who may want to attend Penn State and will now have the means to do so," Penn State President Rodney Erickson said in a statement. "As we promised throughout this process, we are committed to continuing to improve all of our policies, procedures and actions."
Board of trustees Chairman Keith Masser commended Erickson and university employees for their work to implement the reforms that led to NCAA's retreat.
Coach Bill O'Brien, who briefed trustees in July about a possible request to the NCAA to modify the sanctions, was equally as gratified.
"As a staff, we are especially pleased for our players, who have proven themselves to be a resilient group of young men who are able to look ahead, focus and overcome adversity," O'Brien said. "Penn State has long been known for graduating its student-athletes and providing them with a world-class education. The scholarship additions will allow us to provide more student-athletes with a tremendous opportunity to earn that degree and play football for Penn State."
Erickson applauded the football coach and his program on Tuesday.
"The resiliency displayed by those young men, as well as our entire student body, is something of which we are proud," Erickson said.
The NCAA moved to lessen the sanctions before Penn State could follow through on O'Brien's proposal. Mitchell said the decision to recommend the modification was his alone and was based on what he observed from a year of monitoring the university.
Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch, also the chairman of the NCAA's Division I board, said he would support lifting the bowl ban on Penn State if the university continues to make progress.
"I think what has to happen is for Penn State to continue the terrific progress it has made to date," Hatch said. "And Sen. Mitchell will continue to monitor that."
The sanctions on Penn State were based on the findings of the Freeh report, which blamed Penn State leaders for covering up child abuse allegations against Sandusky more than a decade ago. The NCAA used the findings in lieu of its own investigation, and Erickson signed a consent decree last summer that authorized the sanctions.
Emmert said the NCAA's decision to lessen the sanctions should not be precedent-setting, given the unique nature of the organization handled the Penn State issue.
"I think in terms of other cases it's important to remember that this case has been handled in an extraordinary manner because of the extraordinary circumstances and the situation it has not been dealt with through the committee on infractions," Emmert said during a conference call with reporters. "There has never been a circumstance in which the committee on infractions has reduced the penalties it has put in place on another institution, so it should not be seen as a precedent for handling other (infractions against other institutions)."
CDT sportswriter Travis Johnson contributed to this report.