Column: Lessons the NCAA Needs to Learn

NCAA officials reduced Penn State sanctions this week, but haven't yet followed the lead of student-athletes who embody core values
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

On November 5, 2011, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on forty criminal counts, including the sexual assault of eight boys over a fifteen-year period, one of them in the showers of Penn State’s football building.

That put in motion a series of events that few could have imagined: it exposed the worst scandal in the history of modern sports; it led to the midseason firing of the iconic Joe Paterno; it prompted the hiring of little-known New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien; it resulted in Penn State’s commissioning the Freeh Report, which concluded university leaders knew enough about what Sandusky had done, but cared more about protecting the university’s image than his young victims; and it surely accelerated Paterno’s decline and death – all within three months of Sandusky’s arrest.

But Penn State’s troubles were far from over.

Most of the players didn’t know who Sandusky was, but their reactions were pretty swift. “They used to hang people at the Centre County Courthouse,” senior linebacker Mike Mauti told me, “and frankly, I would have been okay with that. Hell, give us the rope, and we’ll do it for you.”

But few Penn State insiders thought the NCAA would punish the football program for Sandusky’s sins, and they had precedent on their side. NCAA officials usually steered clear of the most serious matters, including rape and murder, leaving them for the appropriate legal authorities, while the NCAA ruled on whether players are allowed to put cream cheese or jam on their breakfast bagel. (They are not.) Letting the NCAA rule on a child rapist is as unwise as putting a meter reader in charge of a serial murder. They were in way over their heads – and they proved it.

At 10 a.m. Monday morning, July 23, 2012, Penn State’s football players gathered in their lounge to watch NCAA president Mark Emmert lay out a series of penalties. One erased a wide swath of Penn State’s rich history, vacating all victories from 1998 through 2011 — thereby dropping Paterno from the perch of his profession down to fifth. The sanctions also threatened Penn State’s future: a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, and a drastic reduction in scholarships, from 85 to 65.

Emmert declared Penn State’s penalties might be considered “greater than any other seen in NCAA history.”

The public focused on the bowl ban, but Coach Bill O’Brien was far more worried about another clause, which allowed Penn State players to transfer immediately, without penalty, to any school they liked, and coaches from other schools to recruit them all over again. That could amount a death sentence, by slow poisoning. Could Penn State’s program survive?

O’Brien spoke immediately to his shell-shocked squad.

“We’re not here to understand the rules,” he told them. “We’re here to follow them. It’s my obligation to tell you that you are free to go anywhere you want, with no penalties. However, if you stay, I promise you, you will never forget it… and you will still get a great education.’ ”

At Penn State, that promise is not hollow. Joe Paterno surely had his blind spots, but how to run a clean program was not one of them. Even the Starbuck baristas in town know they can’t give a Penn State player so much as a free latte.

Within 24 hours, a hundred coaches from around the country converged on the parking lot of Penn State’s football building in the hopes of luring their players away. Some of those coaches, the players knew from being recruited the first time, would offer the players money, women and more.

Would O’Brien’s simple offer be enough to keep his players in State College?

“Were we in danger of a complete collapse?” assistant coach Larry Johnson, Sr., wondered aloud. “No question. The threat was as real as it could be.”

The NCAA sanctions were putting the lie to the NCAA’s own propaganda, which officially discouraged transfers because “student-athletes” are supposed to pick their schools for the education, not the athletic opportunities. But there Emmert was, inviting Penn State’s student-athletes to jettison the university that graduated 91% of its student-athletes – a big reason many of them chose Penn State in the first place – to transfer to programs that couldn’t come close to that rate.

Not only did it suddenly fall to every Penn State player who stayed to protect their storied program from disintegrating, they could only do so by upholding the very values the NCAA itself could apparently no longer proclaim with a straight face.

Amazingly, almost all of the players stayed – but they were rewarded with two straight losses, forcing them to save the season. Again, they rallied, finishing with a surprising 8-4 record, capped by an overtime victory over Wisconsin, the eventual Big Ten champions.

They had survived the sanctions, and the start to their season.

Emmert was probably as surprised as anyone. This week, the NCAA announced they were reducing Penn State’s penalties, restoring scholarships faster than originally planned – though, I suspect, for the wrong reasons.

Penn State’s leadership still seems lost. The 32-member board of trustees – one of the most dysfunctional boards in higher education, seemingly by design – hired one of their own, a former trustee whose business had gone bankrupt, to run the athletic department with no prior experience. How Sandusky was able to get away with his heinous crimes for so long, they still haven’t determined. The countless court cases to come will likely have something to say about that.

But the players’ stoic response to the sanctions turned the tide of public opinion – and that’s what turns the NCAA around. It is an organization without any guiding principles, save one: Do whatever is best for the NCAA, at that moment. That its decision also happens to be what’s best for Penn State’s student-athletes is merely a coincidence.

At the end of Penn State’s surprising season, one assistant coach told me, he’d always remember that their kids knew how to handle the situation better than most of the adults.

What was true ten months ago is just as true today. Important lessons were learned – about honesty, resilience and responsibility – just not by the people who needed to learn them.

About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at

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  1. By Ellen Brown
    September 27, 2013 at 10:13 am | permalink

    “it exposed the worst scandal in the history of modern sports” This is the basis of the false narrative. It was NEVER a sports scandal. It wasn’t about sports. It wasn’t about college football. It was about a pedophile who just happened to be an EX-coach. His profession just as easily have been a doctor, lawyer, mailman, store clerk, or any other number of professions. If a doctor is convicted of being a pedophile, do we call it a medical scandal? Of course not.

  2. By Nancy Lee
    September 27, 2013 at 10:18 am | permalink

    Thank you John. The accuracy of this article and your insight is dead on. I will be buying your books today and subscribing to The Chronicle. Supporting columnists like you is a rare pleasure.

  3. By Steve Fotos
    September 27, 2013 at 1:13 pm | permalink

    An excellent summary of events and a keen analysis. The NCAA is doomed as currently structured and the root of that doom is an obtuse, hypocritical and arbitrary leadership.

    Whatever one thinks of the original scandal, it is a matter for real courts, with real subpoena power and real rules of evidence. Most of the country, unlike the author, does not even know that the trials of the three administrators involved have not even taken place yet……

  4. By Andrea Swatsworth
    September 27, 2013 at 1:23 pm | permalink

    Thank you, Thank you , Thank you, Mr. Bacon. A very clear-eyed accounting of the good, the bad and the ugly of what happened and is still happening. Very accurate, even the ‘worst scandal in the history of modern sports’. Though many people vehemently argue that it should not be, it is the false narrative that was started by the news and sports media outlets. It is the false narrative that the 11/11 BOT did nothing and has done nothing to refute and it is the false narrative that Penn Staters across the country and the world are fighting to correct. Your well written, rational article is the real story. It is very much appreciated. Andrea, Penn State ’80

  5. By Rod Johnson
    September 27, 2013 at 1:24 pm | permalink

    Just to be absolutely clear, the idea that players are not allowed to put cream cheese or jam on their breakfast bagel is a joke, right?

  6. September 27, 2013 at 1:41 pm | permalink

    Ellen, I see your point, to a point. But when the pedophile in question leveraged his position as a respected Penn State football coach, and his access to the football building, to prey on his victims, it’s a sports scandal, same as the pedophiles who preyed on victims in the Catholic Church made that a church scandal.

    Nancy, thank you.

    Rod, I wish. Just to be absolutely clear, yes, that WAS a rule in the NCAA rulebook for years, though I believe they have finally, and only recently, altered or eliminated it. The rule goes like this: The players are allowed only one bona fide team meal per day, during non-competition days. During practice days, schools are allowed to provide a breakfast bagel as a snack, and butter with it, but not cream cheese or jam, as that would make it a “meal,” and therefore a violation. (It’s not clear to me if margarine is also allowed.)

    I am not making this up. (Reported in Three and Out.)

    Given this, I imagine you can better appreciate my reservation in letting such a governing body, which adjudicates on condiments, deliver justice to a pedophile — no matter how richly he deserves it. Better to let the prosecutors handle that one, and they did a superb job.

    Hope this clears up any confusion.


  7. By Rod Johnson
    September 27, 2013 at 1:43 pm | permalink

    Ellen, while you make a reasonable point, there are additional facets to this that make sports relevant. First, the culture of sports camps and kids who feel that their whole future depends on cultivating good relationships with coaches put Sandusky in an unusually powerful and unaccountable position. Second, Sandusky, by virtue of his “ex-coach” status, had an unusual degree of access to Penn State’s facilities and its brand identity. Third, the fact that his behavior was downplayed, ignored or mishandled, whatever you want to call it, by Penn State’s leadership was due to the sacred-cow status of intercollegiate sports, especially the football program. And finally, without the looming threat of the NCAA’s capricious approach to enforcement, schools would probably do a better job of policing themselves. As it is, they have a strong incentive to cover up problems.

    These are problems that are endemic to collegiate sports. They’re are much less likely to come up with doctors, lawyers, mailmen or store clerks. That’s not to say other professions don’t have ethical issues, but it seems wrong to suggest that the way collegiate sports is currently configured didn’t play a crucial role here. So I think calling it a “sports scandal” is appropriate.

    It’s also worth noting that whenever the Sandusky scandal is discussed on the web, drive-by commenters start showing up to support Penn State. I have no idea whether or not Ellen is one, but the determination to minimize Penn State’s responsibility here is notable.

  8. By Rod Johnson
    September 27, 2013 at 1:44 pm | permalink

    Oh, what John said.

  9. By mike
    September 27, 2013 at 5:16 pm | permalink

    I would like to say that this is a really good article and doesn’t have the usual problems most writers have of leaving out details. Well played Sir.

    My only issue would be… I can see how you would compare it to churches except this man no longer worked there and wasn’t the one in charge when he was. It would be less like the priests taking advantage of children and more like the retired choir leader doing it. Which in that case wouldn’t have the same giant splash so instead everyone trying to sell their story blames it on the entire school and Paterno.

    Secondly, Jerry Sandusky was not found guilty of any crimes on the Penn State campus. “Victim #2″ has come forward and stated that he was not molested in the shower that night which calls into question what Mike McQueary actually told anyone. He obviously didn’t see anything if even the victim says that, while he was abused by Sandusky, it never happened at Penn State. Also, before McQueary told Joe, (who in turn made him report it to the person in charge of the Penn State Police force Gary Schultz) he told his father and his father’s friend Dr. Dranov. The Doctor is a mandated reporter who has stated that if they thought it was serious enough to call the police immediately they would have. The one thing that pretty much everyone agrees on is that what McQueary told them was not molestation but it was inappropriate. Which seems to be why they decided to talk to him rather than file a report. McQueary’s testimony has changed several times. He even thought it was an entire year later that this incident occurred. If he really saw what he says he did how could he confuse the date by an entire year and why would his story keep changing?

    Here is a link about victim number 2 that sheds a little more light on the situation.

  10. By Brad Pantall
    September 27, 2013 at 6:40 pm | permalink

    John –

    Your article hits on many points given its brief length.

    That you identified that 1 of PSU (my alma mater)’s biggest short comings is the BoD structure is what has created a massive divide within the Penn State community.

    I doubt that the indictment in Nov ’11 was out of the blue and that many people across the Ath. Dpt, Administration, and Board at PSU knew that something was coming. Their inability to effectively respond to the indictment was astonishing.

    The unfortunate matter in all of this is that, outside of the victims (and I mean that genuinely), the people most affected, the PSU student community, was never given a chance to react or have a voice. Should they have? I don’t know. But what I do know is that the PSU student community, like many university student bodies nationwide, is given the opportunity to respond that their collective voices and actions can effect change and awareness. The best example, at least at PSU, is the student run Dance Marathon that raised over $10 million towards pediatric cancer.

    At the end of the day, no one will know what Joe “knew”, but we all now know what Joe could have known. Hindsight is amazing that way. An example in a totally different arena is the recent Navy Yard shooter who had all sorts of red flags yet he had the access and the clearance to a highly sensitive naval station.

    Looking back at much of what has come out of the investigation, there seem to have been quite a few red flags:
    within PSU athletics (McQuery’s alerting those above him),
    the PSU Admin (Graham Spanier’s knowledge and involvement in granting Sandusky Emeritus status, which was signed off on by current interim President Erickson)

    and then outside of Penn State, whether it was
    the Children & Youth Services (to whom early allegations were reported),
    The Second Mile (Sandusky’s grooming grounds that was alerted on several occasions of his peculiar behavior).

    Unfortunately, Sandusky was not fiction and I doubt that Hollywood’s finest could not have invented this story.

    The only silver lining that I see is that children, especially in Pennsylvania, for the past 2 years have been asking their parents, “dad/mom, I don’t understand. What happened to JoePa? What did that Sandusky guy do?” and now parents can’t beat around the bush and must tell their kids about how horrible adults can be and that if they are ever in such a situation that their parents are there for them to protect them.

    My faith in the Penn State community (not the administration or the Board) is that it isn’t an ashes to ashes, dust to dust story; but that the blue and white community will recognize that no one is infallible and that there is always a chance to rise, especially when under a spotlight…or a microscope.

    P.S. U all in Ann Arbor better beat up on those Buckeyes :)

  11. By Andrea Swatsworth
    September 27, 2013 at 6:59 pm | permalink

    At the risk of being considered one of those ‘drive-by commenters’, I am compelled to respond/inquire about some things written subsequent to my post.

    First I would like to note that I rarely make comments on anything I read on the web unless I am particularly moved to do so. After nearly 2 years of following this story I was struck by the truth I heard in Mr. Bacon’s article. Since I haven’t had much luck finding such articles I wanted to thank him for it.

    Second, I was wondering why no comments were being made about my post because I thought I had made it clear I was a Penn State supporter. When I reread my post I thought maybe I had not been as clear as I intended. The idea that it is a sports scandal befuddles me because it had little to do with sports. People like Jerry Sandusky will do what they do and use anything at their disposal to groom their victims. It is my understaning that he was involved in sports programs all his life they are what he knows so it makes sense to me that he would use that. I think what Ellen may have been trying to suggest was that it could have as easily been a person of any profession using what he was familiar with to appeal to young boys. Granted, sports is easy because programs are so readily available.

    I also was impressed that Mr. Bacon did not use the word scandal and Penn State together in his article. JS was connected with Penn State and he stood under the umbrella of it’s well deserved reputation in academics and sports. He used the reputation that had been carefully and lovingly nurtured over the decades by countless people ,and by association their reputations as well,to give him more credibility. If it were not for that association with Penn State I’d bet there would have been only a few articles written and a few fleeting mentions on the news or sports stations and I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t still be talking about it today. That association is what made it a story and the news and sports media ate it up with a big soup spoon. Most importantly, nobody in a position to speak for the school either wanted to or were capable of (I still don’t know which) defending it so the media had free reign. I care about Penn State and I admire certain individuals that I think helped shape that reputation by words and actions. I can not express how helpless I felt as the media circus got worse by the days, weeks and months. I have two sons the same ages as some of the victims. I was ill over the thought of what happened but I could not and still do not understand what can be accomplished by painting everyone and everything associated with JS with a broad brush of guilt. Mistakes were made on the part of some individuals, of that I am sure, but I think the understanding of the nature and deliberateness of those mistakes has been delayed by the unanswered frenzy in the media

    I agree with Mr. Johnson that Penn State has a responsibility. I don’t think we agree on what it is though. As an institution of learning, the responsibility is to get things right so as to be informed, reform and educate. Something awful happened to little boys at the hands of a monster. That monster used what he was familiar with and in doing so groomed an entire community and we’re talking a wide spread community not just a sleepy little town in the midst of tree covered hills. Many Penn Staters are angry and hurt and will not let it go. They can’t help themselves from commenting on the web and have a little trouble controlling their passion. The reason is ,believe it or not, because when we say “We Are …Penn State” we really mean it. It’s more than a place on a map or a piece of paper in a frame on the wall or a team record. It represents a philosophy to live by and includes all that sappy crap about doing things The Penn State Way and Success With Honor. Some people don’t understand this and frankly I feel a little silly reading it back after I’ve typed it here but I won’t deny the truth of it. I can’t speak for all as to why it’s true but for meI think I identify with it because it is reflective of the way I was raised and the things my parents taught me.

    Finally, I need to know how we missed this monster of a man harming children in association with an institution and world wide community that I care about, not just because it hurt my feelings but because the safety of children is at stake. Knowledge of the truth no matter how difficult, is the only way to protect them. All that being said, it frightens me to think that if it could happen under these circumstances that it really truly could happen anywhere. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity to learn because we blaming everything on the easy, obvious things. Nor do I think it is fair to dismiss peoples ideas and feelings because they express them differently.

  12. By Jerry Weaver
    September 27, 2013 at 7:03 pm | permalink

    Incredible John. 100% correct. A great piece!

  13. By James Williams
    September 27, 2013 at 10:44 pm | permalink

    This was a good read, but it just kills me that no one talks about The Second Mile. JS would have never had access to any of the victims if not for TSM. I feel that in any case that it would be hard to be aware of JS actions because the mans job was working with kids. The issue I still have with the NCAA is the fact they are saying PSU had a culture problem when the program has never been in trouble.

  14. By Jen
    September 27, 2013 at 11:39 pm | permalink

    Nice article John…but a missing sentence to your opening paragraph is ” On June 22, 2012 Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 counts. The sexual assualt count in the football locker room, which pertains to the McQueary witness that lead to Coach Paterno’s firing, was found not guilty, due to lack of evidence.” A fact most people do not know. Once again, complete truth of this ongoing story STILL finding a hard time getting from a jounalists pen to paper. Same old half truths coming through loud and strong.

  15. By Rod Johnson
    September 28, 2013 at 7:37 pm | permalink

    Andrea (#11): I didn’t respond to your earlier comment because I found nothing to disagree with. And frankly, I don’t disagree with this one either. So no argument from me!

  16. By Mike Neary
    September 29, 2013 at 2:55 am | permalink

    John U. Bacon, accurate, succinct and powerful! Andrea, OMG! Eloquent.

  17. September 29, 2013 at 8:21 am | permalink


    It is easy to talk about Penn State but much harder to talk about the University of Michigan, on which your livelihood depends.

    One result of the Penn State scandal was that a UM pediatrician went back to the University administration and insisted that their blocking the investigation of another pediatrician for possession of child pornography could not stand. Only because that person was courageous enough to tell the people in power the truth, the criminal no longer has a license to practice medicine and will spend 3 years in prison.

    Penn State published the Freeh report for everyone to see. The UM Board of Regents is keeping the report of the investigation into the delay in reporting the child pornography to police secret under attorney client privilege.

    I would have more respect for you if your column called upon the Regents to make the report of the investigation public.