The NCAA's brass realized that they had overstepped the bounds of their authority--and committed an injustice against an honorable man--by stripping Joe Paterno of 111 wins in 2012 and on Friday they belatedly corrected their error. Paterno thus regains his deserved status as the winningest coach in major college football history with 409 wins, 32 more than the retired Bobby Bowden.
The NCAA reached a settlement agreement with Penn State just weeks before the NCAA would have faced a trial concerning the legality of the consent decree that the NCAA issued in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal. That consent decree slapped Penn State with wide-ranging sanctions based on recommendations issued by the flawed and much-criticized Freeh Report.
There is no evidence proving that Paterno could have prevented Sandusky--who served under Paterno as Penn State's defensive coordinator--from engaging in his reprehensible conduct and in fact Paterno acted exactly as he was supposed to act based on the limited information that he knew. The NCAA admitted, in emails submitted to the court as evidence, that pursuing the harsh penalties that it sought to enforce against Penn State was a "bluff." Despite the NCAA's shaky case, Penn State's then-President Rodney Erickson signed the NCAA's consent decree, signifying that the university would not challenge any of the NCAA's findings or actions in the matter.
It is tempting and easy to pile criticism on Paterno and anyone else associated with Penn State's football program during the time that Sandusky preyed on young boys but guilt by association and guilt by incorrect inference are not methods that any fair-minded person should support. The ghastly nature of Sandusky's crimes does not excuse conducting a sloppy investigation afterward, culminating in a broad-brush "pox on all of their houses" set of punishments that singled out Paterno merely because Paterno is the most famous name associated with Penn State. A report drafted by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and a team of experts in law and sexual disorders concluded, "Regrettably, the Freeh report is riddled with errors and misjudgments. No objective individual would ever allow a report as fundamentally flawed, both in process and on the facts as this one, to be he defining statement on their own life, their family or any organization about which they care."
The NCAA rushed to judgment against Paterno and besmirched the reputation of a good man. Voicing support for Paterno does not in any way minimize how horrendously Sandusky acted and the reality that some officials at Penn State failed to act swiftly and properly--but there is no evidence that Paterno committed any wrongdoing. The investigators who brought Sandusky to justice disagreed with casting aspersions on Paterno: Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office, explained, "We have a cooperating witness [Paterno],
an individual who testified, provided truthful testimony but two others
who were found by a grand jury to commit perjury whose legal expenses
are being paid for university. One is on administrative leave. Very
interesting development. It's certainly curious and [has] not been
explained yet. Speaking as a prosecuting agency, we have a cooperating
witness who has not been charged, while two individuals accused of
committing crimes continue to be affiliated."
The time, money and energy spent attacking Paterno would have been better used pursuing the Penn State officials who covered up Sandusky's crimes and then hindered the progress of the Sandusky investigation.