Opinion: Penn State Rose Bowl appearance highlights NCAA incompetence

Lucas Misera

Lucas Misera

Today, the University of Southern California and Penn State square off on perhaps the most coveted stage in collegiate football: the Rose Bowl.

These programs have two particular common characteristics that the media has avidly covered in the lead-up to the game.

The first is that each team enters the game as the hottest squads in the country. USC enters the game on an eight-game winning streak after a 1-3 start to the year; Penn State, after starting the year with early losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan, also rode an eight-game winning streak en route to winning the Big Ten Championship.

However, the programs are comparable in another aspect: each has recently been marred by the wrath of the NCAA as a result of serious — though differing — violations.

USC’s run-in with the NCAA was the result of improper conduct by former college football standout and current NFL running back Reggie Bush and basketball player O.J. Mayo, an exceptional guard for the Trojans during the 2007 season. The two high-profile players were accused by both their university and the NCAA of accepting money and gifts from agents.

In response, Bush was forced to forfeit his 2005 Heisman trophy, while USC football suffered a two-year bowl ban and the loss of 30 scholarships over a 3-year span after the 2010 investigation.

The program was also forced to vacate wins from 2004-2005, including its 2004 BCS National Championship win.

USC was certainly affected by the sanctions — this year’s Rose Bowl will be the team’s first major bowl appearance since the allegations surfaced.

Some argue that the sanctions handed down were far too harsh. Yet, the message from the NCAA was clear: even historically great programs will not be immune to the consequences of contravening the association’s bylaws.

In late 2011, the NCAA’s attention shifted to Penn State. News broke that former Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky had sexually assaulted young boys in Penn State facilities since at least the ’70s, using a program geared towards at-risk youth that he spearheaded — The Second Mile — as an avenue for taking advantage of his victims. It later emerged that former Athletic Director Tim Curley and Penn State’s head coach at the time, Joe Paterno, were aware of the misconduct.

What festered at Penn State for much of the late-20th century was a borderline college campus-sized humanitarian crisis, as the welfare of approximately 50 children took a backseat to the university’s football program.

The NCAA’s initial sanctions in 2012 were crippling, a punishment worthy of such egregious wrongdoing: the football program was banned from bowl games for four years, a $60 million fine was levied against the university, 112 of Paterno’s wins were vacated and the number of available scholarships was reduced 85 to 65 per year for the 2013-17 seasons.

However, the original punishment was short-lived; Penn State was eligible for the postseason in 2014, and 2015 saw the scholarship reduction lifted and Paterno’s wins reinstated.

After the NCAA softened its stance on the Sandusky scandal, the punishments handed down to USC and Penn State were comparable; barring the $60 million fine, the universities were effectively issued bowl bans of identical lengths and similar scholarship reductions.

USC has yet to have its wins reinstated. However, Paterno — who served as a catalyst to Sandusky’s behavior through deliberate inaction — now stands as the winningest coach in FBS history because the NCAA and its president, Mark Emmert, asserted that it retrospectively “didn’t have the authority to impose the penalties.”

Yes, that’s the same NCAA that canceled Southern Methodist University’s 1987 and 1988 seasons because players were paid upwards of $61,000 in total. It’s the same NCAA that essentially robbed Ohio State of a 2012 championship and tarnished that undefeated season because then-quarterback Terrelle Pryor traded memorabilia for tattoos.

But when it came to ensuring fans that no university should prioritize winning football games over the safety of children — a message that seems painfully obvious — the NCAA suddenly decided that perhaps it was overstepping its regulatory boundaries.

Leading up to the Rose Bowl, a major talking point surrounds two programs in USC and Penn State that managed to return to their roles as football powerhouses in the face of NCAA authoritarianism.

One program’s absence was the consequence of two players jeopardizing their roles as “amateurs” by receiving improper benefits from agents.

The other team?

Its all-too-brief disappearance from the national spotlight was driven by three decades of child molestation that was covered up by a grossly perverse athletic department.

If the NCAA had correctly maintained the initial sanctions, Penn State wouldn’t be anywhere near the Rose Bowl — or any other postseason appearance, for that matter.

Instead, today’s game serves as a crushing reminder that the NCAA elected to side with football over victims of child abuse in what was one of the most high-profile scandals in the history of college athletics.

Lucas Misera is the opinion editor, contact him at [email protected]