NCAA’s Penn State punishment fits the crime, offers relief

There was an almost visceral satisfaction in hearing the NCAA president on Monday recite the severe punishment against Penn State and its shamed football program over the Jerry Sandusky pedophile scandal.

I suppose I’ll feel something similar when I hear a jury’s guilty verdict in the movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colo.

Justice makes us feel better by feeding our hunger for vengeance when the crimes are so incomprehensible that the senses reel and the skin crawls. Not a victim has been saved by justice, but we hope Monday’s penalties might bring a measure of relief to Sandusky’s victims in much the same way we hope eventual justice will be a step toward closure for families in Colorado burying loved ones.

It took mass murder to trump Sandusky on the 2012 scale of what heinous is, but the NCAA has left little doubt how seriously it regards a prominent assistant football coach sexually abusing young boys year after year — some on campus, in the team shower — while top university officials including iconic coach Joe Paterno looked the other way.

Some spoke of Penn State football deserving the “death penalty,” a temporary abolishment of the program.

What Penn State got was worse, more long-lasting, unprecedented.

Sandusky, 68, guilty of 45 counts and facing up to 468 years in prison at sentencing, likely will die in prison before his former Nittany Lions fully recover from the sanctions he caused.

A four-season bowl ban, the longest the NCAA has imposed since 1960.

A reduction of 80 football scholarships over four years.

Current players, all freed to transfer elsewhere and play immediately.

A $60 million fine for the university.

Five years of probation.

And every Penn State football victory from 1998 through last season — 112 wins during the past 14 seasons — all are vacated. Erased. (Meaning retired Bobby Bowden is now tops in Football Bowl Subdivision wins again as JoePa is toppled.)

NCAA president Mark Emmert called what happened at Penn State “tragic damage” and called the sanctions “greater than any seen in NCAA history.”

The Big Ten Conference has added its own penalties, imposing four years of lost bowl revenue-sharing that amounts to another $13 million hit for Penn State.

For the victims

This is for Sandusky’s victims, especially for the ones who would have been spared if — as determined by the independent Freeh Report — either Paterno, or then-school president Graham Spanier, or then-athletic director Tim Cooley, or then-school vice president Gary Schultz, had done his job and aggressively pursued indications that Sandusky was up to his shocking no good.

This is also a statement against the culture that places winning above all else, even the safety of children.

The family of the late Paterno understandably fights to save his damaged name and legacy, but that fight is as hopeless as Sandusky still maintaining his innocence in the face of such overwhelming testimony by victims. The school on Sunday removed the statue of Paterno that had stood in front of the football stadium, a blue blanket cloaked over JoePa’s bronzed head, that “we’re No. 1” index finger still raised high.

Taking down the statue was right.

So were Monday’s severe sanctions.

The NCAA hits hardest when there is evidence of a lack of “institutional control.” That usually involves more standard rules breaking, such as improper benefits given to players or recruits. In Penn State’s case that lack of institutional control enabled crimes and shattered young lives. For years.

The sledgehammer that came down on Penn State is particularly relevant in South Florida as the Miami Hurricanes football program and its fans try to place the ongoing NCAA investigation of UM in a broader context.

Good news for UM

The good news is that the Hurricanes’ rule breaking seems a lot less serious ever since Sandusky and Penn State redefined for all time what real wrongdoing is. A year ago the allegations of renegade booster-turned snitch Nevin Shapiro — the now-jailed Ponzi schemer — seemed serious enough to bring the death penalty into conversations.

Players treated to yacht parties involving hookers! What could be worse!?

Now we know. And UM’s improprieties seem closer to littering and jaywalking compared with Sandusky’s crimes and the tacit approval of Paterno doing nothing.

UM fans might realistically hope that the NCAA will feel the same way, and also that the NCAA will be favorably impressed that Miami voluntarily banned itself from a bowl game last season, and that eight Canes players already have served suspensions of one game or more based on involvement with the rogue Shapiro.

All of that should mitigate against the severity of future punishments still pending.

Except there are new allegations now, made Friday by Yahoo! Sports, that coach Al Golden had “direct knowledge” that a former assistant equipment manager, Sean “Pee Wee” Allen, aided Golden’s staff in recruiting, a rules violation made worse (if true) because it would be a lack of institutional control.

The latest claim (if true) would be especially damning because it would indicate that wrongdoing didn’t just predate Golden’s arrival but continued under him. Golden has denied the story and its claim, though, so we’ll see.

Miami’s beleaguered second-year coach is up in North Carolina at the Atlantic Coast Conference Football Kickoff media days being asked about everything except football, between the NCAA cloud over his program and the fact he’s a Penn State alum who played for Paterno.

“I think my integrity and reputation over the last 18 years speaks for itself,” Golden said Monday.

(May Al’s reputation continue to speak for itself better than Paterno’s has posthumously …)

Hurricanes fans braced for an NCAA decision on UM penalties cannot be sure whether to be hopeful or worried by what happened to Penn State.

What Miami has done, acknowledged or claimed, clearly is nowhere near that level of egregiously wrong.

But Monday also reminded that when the NCAA is of a mind to punish, its hammer can be a heavy, bludgeoning thing.