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College Football Questions & Answers: The Penn State Edition, Part I

Were the NCAA Sanctions Fair? What Comes Next for Bill O'Brien?


Silas Redd

Silas Redd is among the Penn State players who may transfer in the wake of NCAA sanctions against his school.

(Getty Images)
Updated July 30, 2012

So the NCAA finally spoke up about Penn State.

And now that Mark Emmert has said his piece, well, this much is clear: Penn State faces a long, hard road back to relevancy.

Because of the university's failure to act in the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal, the NCAA has banned Penn State from postseason play for four years, taken away 10 scholarships per year, placed the program on five years' probation and fined the university $60 million. The punishment, which Penn State has accepted without appeal, represents the most dramatic sanctions handed out to any college football program since SMU received the so-called "death penalty" back in 1987.

The questions now, of course, are obvious: What comes next for Penn State? How bad will things get up in Happy Valley? And how long will it be before Bill O'Brien can get this program back on track?

We attempt to answer those questions here, in our Part 1 of our Penn State edition of College Football Questions & Answers.

Were the sanctions "fair?"

Well, let's be honest here: "Fair" doesn't have anything to do with it. The fact is, the NCAA found itself in an impossible position. Faced with the single worst scandal in college sports history, the NCAA knew it had to act; if it didn't, the critics who say college football has run amok would only have more fodder for their arguments. So Emmert, it seems, simply made the decision to act, to act quickly and to act boldly--even though doing so meant that he had to sidestep that little thing called "due process." Emmert justified his actions by indicating that an unprecedented scandal demanded an unprecedented response. It's hard to argue with that. But there's little question that Emmert opened a "Pandora's Box" of sorts with this move; from this point forward, any college sports scandal involving criminal activity would seem to be subject to similar swift action. If the NCAA doesn't deliver that, questions will be asked.

But you didn't answer the question. Were the sanctions "fair?"

I don't think there's really a decent answer for this. If you're asking me whether a four-year bowl ban, a $60 million fine and massive scholarship reductions are suitably damaging to punish a program (and university) for their role in the cover-up of the actions of a pedophile, well, the answer is clear: Yes, these punishments are suitably damaging. Penn State has been cast off to the college football wilderness, and is not likely to return to prominence for at least 5 to 7 years. The death penalty was never a real option--don't let Emmert fool you, there was no way the Big Ten's television partners were going to go for any deal that removed Penn State from the picture any amount of time--and so the NCAA did what it had to do to show that, when it comes to something as fundamental to human decency as the protection of children, the kind of things that happened at Penn State are simply not going to be tolerated. Then again, if you're asking me whether the current crop of Penn State players, the current crop of Penn State students and the residents of State College--folks who may or may not see the economics of their town dip along with the fortunes of the football team--deserve to be punished so harshly for something they had nothing to do with, well, that's another question entirely. But such is life in college athletics. It's never the people who do the misdeeds who pay the long-term price. It's always those who are left behind.

Fair or not, the sanctions are now in place. So what happens now?

First, what happens now is Penn State coach Bill O'Brien goes about the work of keeping this team together. O'Brien, the former New England Patriots offensive coordinator, finds himself in what could rightly be termed an impossible situation. While he may be successful in keeping his upperclassmen around--those guys are so entrenched that they may simply not even consider leaving now--he faces a much tougher task in selling the program to his underclassmen--guys who are still relatively new to the program, and still could have plenty to play for if they packed up and went elsewhere--as well as potential recruits. While early indications are that many of the best Nittany Lions will stick around at least through this season, it's safe to assume that the transfers will start to hit en masse come January. But that's a concern for another day. In the meantime, O'Brien must concentrate not only on getting his team tactically and physically ready for the season, but also on making sure that his players actually want to be there--and are actually ready to deal with a football life that does not include the possibility of any bowl appearance, any league championship, or any national championship.

Next: What's the best case scenario for Penn State? Where will the program be in three years? Will O'Brien last through the end of the sanctions?

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