Penn State's Controversial Return to Prominence

When I first fell in love with the game of football over a decade ago, my family was living in Columbus, Ohio. So, as anyone who had just discovered a sport, I needed to pick a team to root for. With it being Columbus, all of my friends and their families were die-hard Ohio State fans. I chose this, the easy and convenient choice, and I quickly fell in love.

The electrifying athletic displays put on by the likes of Ted Ginn Jr., Troy Smith, and A.J. Hawk were enough to hook any kid on the sport. Being a Buckeye fan, I was naturally inclined to hate Penn State. They were a fellow Big 10 team and consistently finished around 10 wins, which was enough to make them a threat.

Prior to the 2011 season, the Big 10 was split into two divisions, placing both Ohio State and Penn State in the “Leaders” division, thus increasing my hatred toward them. Then, November of that same 2011 season, Jerry Sandusky, a former Assistant Coach and Defensive Coordinator of the Penn State football team from 1970 until 1999, was arrested on multiple accounts of sexual abuse of children. In addition to his role as a coach, Sandusky was the founder of The Second Mile, a nonprofit aimed at helping at-risk youth, which Sandusky used for his own deviant purposes.

Now, following this new development, I actually had a reason to hate Penn State. No longer did I just have the irrational, and often exaggerated, hatred of one fan towards his team's rival. No, now I had the sort of hatred that one feels towards a group of men who spent years looking the other way as one man took advantage of his influence for his own perverse gains.

Following Sandusky’s arrest and the subsequent media storm, the school was punished. The football program, while not receiving the death penalty (a ban from competing in a sport for at least a season), as many believed it should, was hit with, most notably: a four year postseason ban, the vacating of 112 of Coach Paterno’s wins, a $60 million fine, the proceeds of which would go towards preventing child abuse, and the loss of 40 scholarships from 2013 to 2017.

The Big 10 fined the school $13 million. Coach Joe Paterno and Athletic Director Tim Curley were fired. Penn State President Graham Spanier was asked to step down. Senior Vice President Gary Schultz returned to retirement. Aside from Paterno, all three of these men were fined and given jail time. Sandusky, the most notorious of all, was sentenced to life in prison.

The Penn State football program was seemingly ruined, and I did not feel bad about it at all. They deserved this, perhaps even far more. They had just received perhaps the harshest sanctions imposed by the N.C.A.A. since Southern Methodist University received the death penalty in 1987 for repeated recruiting violations.

Over the next few years, however, the sanctions were, at least to me, somewhat quietly rescinded. The team became postseason eligible after only two years, not four. By 2015, all of their scholarships were restored. And finally, Paterno’s wins were restored to his original 409, again making him the winningest coach in F.B.S. N.C.A.A. Football history. Much of this can be attributed to a couple of Pennsylvania lawmakers trying to keep Penn State’s $60 million dollar fine in the state.

They argued that since the school was publicly funded, their fine should have to stay within the state that funds it. The passing of this law resulted in a lawsuit from the N.C.A.A., which further led to the uncovering of many emails from within the N.C.A.A. These emails showed that the N.C.A.A. implied a potential death penalty even though a death penalty was never on the table. In order to avoid this severe of a penalty, Penn State was quick to accept any lesser sanctions offered. The offered, and then accepted, sanctions were shown to be imposed in order to make an example of Penn State. The discovery of this information gave Penn State enough leverage to get the N.C.A.A. to lift many of their sanctions.

Now, in their sixth full season since Paterno, Penn State is one of the best teams in the nation. They suffered through two years of ineligibility, an eight and a seven-win season. They went on to post two more seven-win seasons.

Then, last year, they won the Big 10 Championship and then lost to U.S.C. in the Rose Bowl after an impressive eleven win season. This year, they are riding high behind Junior Heisman hopeful, Saquon Barkley. In case you did not realize last year, Penn State football is back, and they are making sure everyone knows it. But how did they bounce back so quickly?

Only six years after initially receiving one of the harshest punishments in the N.C.A.A., they are contenders for a national title. Is this an example of a community coming together in the face of tragedy and rebuilding itself to its former glory, putting that which tainted it behind? Or is it instead an example of the N.C.A.A. overextending itself, to the point of mistake, and allowing a program to perhaps get away with far more than it deserves? Penn State is back, and good for them, but should they be?