Tuesday, July 24, 2012
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: NCAA penalties send clear message to everyone in college sports

Penalties send clear message to everyone in college sports

GREENSBORO, N.C. - The NCAA had to make jaws drop. Had to. Not just those at Penn State - that campus almost has to be numb by now, given the horrors of the past year - but everywhere.

And drop they did. Yes, even here, at the luxurious Grandover Resort in Greensboro, on a glorious day for golf and the time-honored (yet ultimately meaningless) release of preseason media polls. It couldn't be business as usual at the ACC Football Kickoff and other events like it, couldn't be the normal, carefree celebration of college football.

No. Cellphones had to buzz in pockets while coaches were lining up putts. Calls for reaction, calls about possible transfers, calls relaying the news out of Indianapolis, where the NCAA had delivered unprecedented punishments in response to an unprecedented scandal: a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban and the loss of 10 scholarships over a four-year period for Penn State because of the Jerry Sandusky cover-up.

The Nittany Lions football program got stomped into bits.

And it had to happen.

Did you feel it where you were Monday morning? Did you pay attention?

Good. Because that's what matters here. Not whether Penn State will be competitive in football in five years, when the postseason ban is over (it won't be). Not whether Virginia, Maryland and other schools could suddenly get a glut of transfers fleeing State College, Pa. (they could). Not whether Joe Paterno remains the winningest coach in major college football (he doesn't).

What matters here is the symbolism. The message. The swiftness of the action, the clarity of the stance.

"The sanctions needed to reflect our goals of providing cultural change," NCAA President Mark Emmert told reporters in Indianapolis. "Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people."

Do you believe him? Probably not. To assume that would be naive. Somewhere, and very soon, football will be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people. We're Americans. Sadly, that's what many of us do. Our priorities are messed up, and changing that takes time.

But what Emmert said is exactly what needed to be said. And, more importantly, it had to be backed up by actions that spark debate and thought and consideration of where athletics ought to rank in the scheme of higher education - and what the consequences are when priorities are grossly misplaced.

Call it a PR move if you want. Others have, respected analysts, claiming that the punishments target the wrong people and do nothing to help the victims of Sandusky. The NCAA is a bunch of hypocrites, that argument goes, and just watch how they make Penn State a scapegoat to please the bloodthirsty and then fail to react appropriately when the next big scandal hits.

Whatever. Can we once - just once - give the NCAA credit for a job well done? Think about it. For years, people complained that the greed of the organization prevented a college football playoff. Then the NCAA created a playoff that will bring in millions of dollars more than the old system, and people complained about that. Which is it? They're greedy for stiff-arming a playoff and greedy for implementing one?

This Penn State issue was so much more serious, so much more important, than any of that. The preservation of a football program stood at the heart of the cover-up that allowed lives to be destroyed. If that's not a time to act harshly, when is?

The NCAA's response was heard by those who most needed to hear it: folks leading football programs everywhere else in the country.

"It's a wake-up call for everyone in college athletics and college sports, not just football, about creating a culture of accountability and responsibility," University of Virginia coach Mike London said. "If you see something that's wrong, you stand up for someone that can't stand up for themselves. รข? You have to continue to educate people and make sure they're aware of the responsibility of what appropriate conduct is."

Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer was on the golf course when the sanctions were announced in the morning. His reaction, according to those playing with him, was one word: "Wow."

"Strong, strong statement," Beamer said later. "That's what hit me."

And down the line the news went, hitting them all, dropping the jaws. Coaches. Athletic directors. Presidents. Fans. The reactions varied based on loyalties, but one thing is clear: This needed to happen.

Good for the NCAA.

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