NCAA modifies sanctions against Penn State, restoring scholarships; may reconsider bowl ban

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The NCAA will restore the scholarships Penn State lost in the crushing sanctions imposed after the Jerry Sandusky scandal, as the organization recognizes that the university has pushed ahead with “significant momentum” to make sweeping changes to the way it runs.

Penn State’s football team will see five scholarships added back each year starting in 2014-2015, with the full complement of 85 scholarships set for 2016-2017, NCAA officials said Tuesday in announcing the modification to the sanctions.

The NCAA’s executive committee approved giving back the scholarships after a recommendation from former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, who was appointed by the NCAA to oversee Penn State’s progress in adopting a number of reforms to enhance its security, ethics, governance and compliance structure. Mitchell, who said he’d been given unfettered access to documentation and employees, praised Penn State’s efforts in the first yearly progress report, which was issued earlier this month.

Under the terms of the NCAA’s consent decree, Penn State was required to adopt all of the 119 recommendations in former FBI director Louis Freeh’s report, and the university put in place all but a few. The Freeh recommendations include requiring background checks on new employees, restricting access to athletics facilities and the hiring of a staff member to ensure the university complies with federal crime-reporting requirements.

The university also had followed the terms of an athletics integrity agreement, which lays out specific requirements for the athletics department.

Many in the Penn State community were hopeful that Mitchell’s positive progress report would pave the way for the NCAA to have a change of heart.

Mitchell said Penn State had made a “good-faith effort to embrace and adopt the changes needed to enhance its future.”

“While there is more work to be done, Penn State has clearly demonstrated its commitment to restoring integrity in its athletics program,” Mitchell said Tuesday. “The university has substantially completed the initial implementation of all the Freeh Report recommendations and its obligations to the Athletics Integrity Agreement, so relief from the scholarship reductions is warranted and deserved.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert said the move to ease up on the scholarship reduction was an “important recognition of the university’s progress.”

The NCAA will also consider rescinding the postseason bowl ban if Penn State continues to show progress, officials said. That would be an incentive for Penn State to continue its work, said Lou Anna Simon, the chairwoman of the NCAA’s executive committee and the president of Michigan State University. There was no word about whether the other sanctions could be included, such as the $60 million fine and the erasing of 112 victories from the history books.

Penn State leaders were thankful for the NCAA’s decision.

“This news is certainly welcome to our university community, particularly the student athletes who may want to attend Penn State and will now have the means to do so,” Penn State President Rodney Erickson said in a statement. “As we promised throughout this process, we are committed to continuing to improve all of our policies, procedures and actions.”

Trustees board Chairman Keith Masser commended Erickson and university employees for their work to implement the reforms that led to the NCAA’s actions. Coach Bill O’Brien, who briefed trustees in July about a possible request to the NCAA to modify the sanctions, was equally as gratified.

“As a staff, we are especially pleased for our players, who have proven themselves to be a resilient group of young men who are able to look ahead, focus and overcome adversity,” O’Brien said. “Penn State has long been known for graduating its student-athletes and providing them with a world-class education. The scholarship additions will allow us to provide more student-athletes with a tremendous opportunity to earn that degree and play football for Penn State.”

Erickson applauded the football coach and his program Tuesday.

“The resiliency displayed by those young men, as well as our entire student body, is something of which we are proud,” Erickson said. “I would also like to thank the literally hundreds of university administrators, faculty, staff and students whose hard work over the past 15 months helped lay the groundwork not only for this action by the NCAA but, even more importantly, for a better Penn State.”

The NCAA moved to lessen the sanctions before Penn State could follow through on O’Brien’s proposal. Mitchell said the decision to recommend the modification was his alone and was based on “observable changes and attitudes” from a year of monitoring the university.

Wake Forest University President Nathan Hatch, a member of the NCAA executive committee, said he would support lifting the bowl ban on Penn State if the university continues to make progress.

“I think what has to happen is for Penn State to continue the terrific progress it has made to date,” Hatch said. “And Sen. Mitchell will continue to monitor that.”

The sanctions on Penn State were based on the findings of the Freeh report, which blamed Penn State leaders for covering up child abuse allegations against Sandusky more than a decade ago. The NCAA used the findings in lieu of its own investigation, and Erickson signed a consent decree last summer that authorized the sanctions.

Penn State alumni and fans have been critical of university leadership for not standing up against the NCAA when the sanctions came down, but Erickson has said his hands were tied. He has said Penn State would have faced the so-called death penalty, or no football, if the university didn’t accept the sanctions.

Mitchell commended Erickson for pushing through with the reforms in the face of alumni anger and even opposition from within the board of trustees.

One of the most vocal critics, trustee Anthony Lubrano, has railed against the leadership for signing the consent decree and called the reforms “baby steps” that don’t go far enough.

Emmert said the reduction of the sanctions against Penn State will not impact the penalties other universities are facing.