Jeff Jacobs: In Nailing Penn State, Did NCAA Open Pandora's Box?

NCAA justice was swift for Penn State, conveniently swift, unprecedented and not all together blind to public relations. There also could be no misunderstanding the severity of the punishment.

Penn State has been brought to its knees. The crushing penalties announced Monday by NCAA President Mark Emmert not only left the Penn State football program crippled, it will need at least a decade to recover and walk tall again.

The NCAA hit Penn State's past. Hard. The NCAA hit Penn State's present. Harder. The NCAA hit Penn State's future. Hardest. Small wonder the dark-humored were left tweeting the message, "We WERE … Penn State."

The school took down Joe Paterno's statue outside Beaver Stadium on Sunday. And by Monday, the NCAA hierarchy already was spitting on it, saying without saying, "Revel in the righteous saliva, you liar, Joe Pa." In the past, NCAA presidents moved as slowly, as glacially as Nittany Mountain in central Pennsylvania. Suddenly, the NCAA president was as swift and decisive as Kenesaw Mountain Landis or Roger Goodell.

Those looking for vengeance for the young boys abused by pederast Jerry Sandusky undoubtedly yelled, "Huzzah!" when Emmert announced that Penn State had been stripped of all victories dating to 1998, thereby eliminating Paterno as the all-time leader in major college football. They undoubtedly yelled, "Huzzah!" when Emmert kept on piling on the punishment … a four-year postseason ban, a reduction of 10 scholarships each year for the next four years that will leave the program 20 scholarship players short from 2014 to 2017, a $60 million fine that must go into external programs preventing child abuse and assisting victims, the ability for every player to transfer immediately without penalty …

By the time Emmert had finished talking and the Big Ten had rescinded all bowl revenue for four years ($13 million also going to a fund for the protection of children), Penn State fans could be forgiven if they pleaded for the NCAA death penalty instead of the living football hell they'll live with the next decade. Eliminating the team for a year or two and being allowed to start from scratch might have proved less painful.

Penn State, of course, has no one to blame but itself. Repeat. Penn State has no one to blame but itself. There wasn't a lack of institutional control. There was absolute control and a conspiracy of silence by a handful of men who made decisions that enabled a child rapist. There is part of me that wants to scream at Penn State, "Looks good on you, you self-righteous hypocrites!"

Then again, part of me often wants to yell the same at the NCAA.

Although the American legal system will take care of Sandusky and the others involved, certainly the NCAA should have been involved in further punishment. Yet there is also something in the unprecedented nature of its ruling Monday that haunts me. It is why I argued strenuously last week for the NCAA to take great pains in including appointed leaders at Penn State and elected officials of Pennsylvania in a process that would be both punitive and reformative. I would feel much better if this outcome had been reached collectively. To keep the emphasis on the abused victims and not how badly Penn State football had been victimized. And it is why I worry that the NCAA, in the name of an unusually heinous crime and, yes, in the name of public relations might have created a precedent that could cause real problems in the future.

Great pains were taken Monday to point out the NCAA executive committee had the authority under its bylaws and constitution to authorize Emmert to take the steps he did. Great pains were taken to point out it could do it without Penn State's cooperation, too, although Penn State did sign off on the ruling. Still, let's be clear. The swift, almost dictatorial course by the NCAA leadership was so far from the ordinary due process so painfully practiced and enforced through the Committee on Infractions that it's not even funny.

"While there's been much speculation whether this fits 'this' specific bylaw or 'that' specific bylaw, it certainly hits the fundamental values of what athletics are supposed to be doing in the context of higher education," Emmert said during the press conference. "Do we have, first and foremost, the academic values of integrity, honesty and responsibility as the drivers of our university? Or are we in a position where hero worship and winning at all costs has subordinated those core values?"

It was terrific rhetoric by Emmert. And so was his line, "If you find yourself in a place where the athletic culture is taking precedence over academic culture then a variety of bad things can occur." And so was this one on how this ordeal, "strikes at the very heart of what intercollegiate athletics is all about."

Oregon State President Edward Ray, chairman of the NCAA executive committee, hearkened back to last summer's presidential retreat at Indianapolis. He said the president decided, 'We've had enough. This has to stop.' …. Does this send a message? The message is, the presidents and chancellors are in charge."

Emmert and Ray were walking a thin, thin line.

On one hand, they were saying — to use Emmert's words — the case was "incredibly unprecedented." On the other hand they were also demonstrating the presidents and not the football culture was in charge. Was this unique? Or was this a unique opportunity for the presidents to step free of NCAA bylaws intended to balance competitive advantage to finally put sports in its rightful place?

"We don't see this opening a Pandora's box at all," Emmert said. "This was a very distinct and very unique set of circumstance."

There is a feeling among NCAA leaders that the Sandusky case is so heinous and the coverup so unusual nothing again will rise to this level of depravity. So maybe the NCAA leaders could tip-toe up to this uniquely sickening ordeal, slam a school in the name of greater righteousness and everyone comes out all the better.

But what about murder? What Sandusky did is the grossest of gross. Yet in my religious background, and in my soul, murder is the worst sin a man can commit. We are deluding ourselves if we believe murder won't happen again in college sports. It happened at Baylor with basketball. It happened when a male lacrosse player killed a female lacrosse player at Virginia. Surely, there are significant criminal, even major homicide cases in the future of the NCAA. Ethical and moral questions will be raised. How will the NCAA react? How should it react? I want to believe the NCAA will be remembered for doing something swift and just on Monday, but I would not rest easy on this one.

"Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people," Emmert said with rhetorical elan on Monday.

I want to believe that. I really do.

I have my doubts.

CHICAGO