The Sports Daily > Nittany Lions Den
Realistic Road to Reducing PSU Sanctions

An Associated Press article this week gave Penn State football fans hope, as school trustees publicly expressed their desire for leniency from the NCAA in reducing the Nittany Lions’ crippling sanctions. The frequent, glowing reports from former Senator George Mitchell (the NCAA-appointed overseer for Penn State’s compliance) also lend credence to the view that the NCAA may be satisfied enough with Penn State to reduce the penalties. 

Some PSU fans argue that any talk of clemency from the stubborn NCAA is a pipe dream. Others would be satisfied with nothing less than an immediate kowtowing from the collegiate sports authority, complete with a sign around the neck of a tarred-and-feathered Mark Emmert reading “I am devil.” Opinions are all over the board.

However, if a few members of the board of trustees are willing to bring it up, I think it’s worth our time to talk about what a reasonable approach to the sanction reductions might look like.

Public Opinion

More and more sports journalists are speaking up against the NCAA’s treatment of Penn State. Some of it is in a “thrown in” manner, protesting against all of the NCAA’s many recent foibles. Some of it is directed pointedly at the vicious and coercive tactics that Mark Emmert and Ed Ray used. 

And then there are the controversial lawsuits that are popping up every week. The NCAA certainly has the legal department to fight tirelessly, but even a victory in the legal courts occasionally rings up as defeat in the court of public opinion.

All in all, it’s reasonable to suggest that as the prevailing attitude towards the NCAA’s treatment of Penn State changes (even if the outrage over Sandusky’s crimes and various individuals’ incompetence doesn’t), the NCAA might best serve its own interests to lessen PSU’s sanctions.


While it’s rare to find examples of the NCAA lessening sanctions, it’s not rare to look back retrospectively and recognize when the NCAA had gone too far. SMU’s death penalty in 1986 is one such case. If there was a way to go back and undo that penalty, many speculate that the NCAA would have.

However, the harshness and length of PSU’s sanctions gives the NCAA time to cripple Penn State yet still shorten its sentence. It already has hurt Penn State in the past eleven months (“What would our record have been with two future NFL draft picks on the 2012 roster and our starting punter/kicker?” we wonder), and even if the punishment ended abruptly today, we’d still be handicapped for years to come.

But that’s not realistic. The NCAA certainly won’t end the sanctions in one fell swoop. Nor could they.

The $60 million fine and the vacated wins are two sanctions which, I believe, will never be redacted. The money went to charity, and reinstating the victories would be a direct admission of fault for the NCAA. Those two penalties are unfortunately forever ours.

And of course the “free transfer” pass that our student-athletes exercised last August and are still privy to (until August 2013) is a penalty that can’t be undone.

But that doesn’t mean the other sanctions can’t be reduced.

A Timeline for Reduction

I can’t imagine that we hear a peep from the NCAA until after the upcoming football season. They would want one more year of everyone talking about their bold punishment, and to mitigate those penalties just one year after implementation would show weakness. Plus, we technically haven’t met all of the suggestions laid out in the Freeh Report.

Next spring, however, would be over two years removed from the original Grand Jury report and two football seasons past the initial sanctions. I believe this would be the first and best time for the NCAA to revisit their punishment, if ever.

Scholarship Reductions

With the 2014 class already behind us by the spring of 2014, the NCAA could announce that 2015’s class would be the last affected by the sanctions (or, if extremely benevolent, they could lift that penalty immediately). That would cut one year off of the scholarship reductions (two if we’re lucky).

Roster reductions

By next spring, Penn State will not even have begun its official roster reductions yet. (Shocking to think.) The 2014 football team will be the first officially limited to 65 players. However, considering that the 2013 team is likely to be at 65 or below by the time August 31 at MetLife Stadium rolls around, I don’t find it outlandish to think that the NCAA might enforce the 65 scholarship limit—which is really the least-mentioned and least-understood of all the sanctions anyway—through just 2015.

Bowl Bans

With two years already enforced by spring 2014, an announcement of a lifting of the final year of the bowl ban (2015 season) would be no-brainer. If the Big Ten felt like lobbying a bit, I don’t doubt that even 2014 might be an eligible year for Penn State in a bowl. The Big Ten would stand to profit by having Penn State—a cash cow for bowls and a likely-eligible team in 2014—on its bowl roster.


No one is going to make the NCAA do anything. If they feel like enforcing their outrageous sanctions all the way through to the end—despite growing public opposition—they will.

Penn State as a university has been nothing but compliant since day 1 (they signed a consent decree to whatever punishment the NCAA decided to hand down, a historical first for any school), which means that the NCAA can save face and be seen (for once) as reasonable and merciful as they lessen the body blow they delivered on July 23, 2012.

As for the recovery of the football program, a reasonable and realistic reduction of sanctions—besides being a major morale booster for the whole Penn State community—could get the Nittany Lions back on equal footing with the rest of college football by 2017.

Isn’t that punishment enough?

Ryan J. Murphy is the author of Ring The Bell: The Twenty-two Greatest Penn State Football Victories of Our Lives (2012), available on sale through Amazon, Amazon Kindle, and other book sellers.