Joe Paterno is gone, and so is his statue. Jerry Sandusky is in prison. The NCAA sanctions have been laid out. But the future of Penn State is hanging in the air.
We know the university has been slapped with a $60 million sanction, a four-year football postseason ban, vacating of their wins since 1998 and a severing of scholarships.
Then there are the civil lawsuits brought by Sandusky's victims. Normally, an institution like Penn State could lean on their general liability insurer for civil suits. But Penn State's insurer isn't willing to pay in this case -- and now Moody's is considering a credit downgrade for the university, which has a current endowment worth $1.708 billion. Penn State President Rodney Erickson appeared Sunday on CBS's Face the Nation, saying the university will likely give the athletic department a long-term loan to pay the NCAA fine. Penn State may also face fines in the hundreds of thousands due to violations of the Clery Act, a federal law requiring universities to report crimes that occur on campus.
Yet these costs still add up to a very unclear picture of how PSU's finances will fare. Can Bill O'Brien rally the players who stay, who won't be able to compete in a bowl game until the 2016 season? He seems to be doing his best, as swarms of recruiters descend from other programs where the grass is more than greener. Will the alumni open their wallets to shore up the stunned football program, or will they watch and wait? The last fiscal year showed the second highest donation amount PSU has ever seen. But as far as future donations, the Alumni Association says it's far too soon to know if they'll make an impact that could offset the sanctions.
There are very few places to look for answers, no blueprint from the past to show us what the Nittany Lions might look like in five, ten, fifteen years. The death penalty imposed on SMU, and the prolonged damage it did to Mustang football, is really the closest comparison we can make, but it's far from equal.
"It's apples and oranges," says John Sparks, the former producer at Dallas' ABC affiliate WFAA who broke the news of the SMU recruiting scandal. "The thing about SMU is that they were dealing with NCAA infractions over recruiting rules. But this thing with Penn State, it was a total loss of institutional control where the university, not just the athletics department, looked the other way because of almighty football."
Sparks, now a journalism professor at the University of North Texas, adds that with recruiting scandals, such as those at SMU and University of Miami, the NCAA followed arduous procedures and worked in committees before sanctions were handed down. There were also appeals processes. But in PSU's case, NCAA President Mark Emmert wielded an iron fist.
"Emmert just made a decision, unilaterally, that they [the NCAA] were going to do something about this," Sparks says. "There was no infractions committee or appeal, and Penn State just took it."
Naturally, there are voices calling for tougher sanctions, and voices (namely those of football players whose wins have been erased) calling them unfair. But, when financially comparing the SMU death penalty to the PSU sanctions, the Nittany Lions have a lot to be thankful for.
To refresh your memory, SMU's 1986 season was cancelled, along with all 1988 home games. The university cancelled the away games that year, too. For three years, they were banned from bowl games and live television. They lost 55 scholarships over four years and had recruiting and coaching limitations as well.
Erickson was thankful they weren't hit with the death penalty.
"Of the two alternatives, it was best to accept the consent decrees that allow us to continue football," Erickson said on Face the Nation.
The sanctions don't include the television ban, the recruiting efforts or the inability to maintain a full coaching staff. Penn State can still sell football tickets and do its best to fill Beaver Stadium. It's clear the scholarship limits will hit the football program hardest. Penn State won't be able to offer the maximum of 25 scholarships, or play with 85 scholarship players, until 2018. It took SMU ten years to get a winning record after the death penalty, and it may take that long for PSU.
O'Brien and the Nittany Lions, and the Penn State alumn, have quite the task ahead of them, but not one that's impossible. The alumni have already shown their ability to rally. Some may pull back, reluctant to back the school that failed to protect children on its campus. But others will realize that this is the time their alma mater needs them most.
From an ethical standpoint, drawing comparisons between sanctions for a football program that maintained a slush fund to pay football players, and one that turned a blind eye to years of sexual abuse of children is ludicrous. Doing so would be just another insult to Sandusky's victims, who already have to watch as their history is overshadowed by people who just want to talk about what this means for football. As Sparks says, it's always in the name of "almighty football."
But the future of the university and its football program does warrant discussion. After all, it was in the name of almighty football that Sandusky was able to continue abusing his victims. It was in the name of almighty football that the powerful turned the other way while the powerless suffered. Perhaps now, it will be in the name of almighty football that Penn State does more than recover, but becomes the model of dignity and responsibility.