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NCAA decides to gradually restore Penn St. football scholarships

| Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2013, 11:45 a.m.
Barry Reeger | Tribune-Review
Penn State head coach Bill O'Brien makes a point with tight end Adam Breneman and quarterback Christian Hackenberg during the 1st quarter against Eastern Michigan at Beaver Stadium on Sept., 7, 2013, in State College. Penn State defeated Eastern Michigan, 45-7.
Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell acknowledges the crowd during a campaign stop for President Obama in South Portland, Maine. The NCAA says that, based on Mitchell's recommendation as Penn State's athletics integrity monitor, it will gradually restore football scholarships taken from the school in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.

Citing Penn State's “continued progress toward ensuring athletics integrity,” the NCAA announced on Tuesday that it is gradually softening the scholarship reductions on the university's football program.

In a rare reversal of a portion of the penalties it levied in 2012, the NCAA said five scholarships will be restored to coach Bill O'Brien's team next season. By the 2015-16 academic year, the full 25-per-year scholarship limit will be reinstated. In the season after that, the Nittany Lions will have their entire 85 scholarship-player maximum available.

“While there is more work to be done, Penn State has clearly demonstrated its commitment to restoring integrity in its athletics program,” said former Sen. George Mitchell, appointed by the NCAA as the independent athletics integrity monitor for Penn State. “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.”

Mitchell recommended restoring the scholarships based on his review of the football program and the university during the past year as Penn State worked to recover from the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. Mitchell, who will continue to work with Penn State, has overseen the university's implementation of the 119 recommendations from the Freeh Report.

In July 2012, the NCAA took unprecedented action in response to conclusions Freeh reached through his $6 million, school-commissioned investigation. Freeh's inquiry was commissioned as part of Penn State's response to allegations that Sandusky sexually assaulted boys, some on campus property. The school did not contest the sanctions.

The initial NCAA sanctions limited Penn State to 15 football scholarships per incoming class from 2013 through 2016, and it capped the team's total scholarships at 65 for the four upcoming seasons.

“We're happy right now for our players and our football program,” O'Brien said. “They're a resilient bunch of kids. We're happy for our people here at Penn State and the people that have worked extremely hard to implement the recommendations of the Freeh Report.”

In citing a small amount of email correspondence between former Penn State President Graham Spanier, former athletic director Tim Curley and former university vice president for finance and business Gary Schultz, Freeh last year denounced Penn State's administration for its “callous and shocking disregard for child victims.” Spanier, Curley and Schultz have been charged for their roles in the alleged cover-up and are awaiting trial.

A jury convicted Sandusky, 69, of 45 counts of child sexual abuse in June 2012. He is serving a 30- to 60-year sentence in state prison. Freeh released his scathing report the next month. Days later, citing Freeh's assertion that a “football culture” at Penn State contributed to inaction in response to allegations against Sandusky, the NCAA levied historic sanctions against the university's football program. Former football coach Joe Paterno, who was fired the week after the Sandusky scandal broke, died in January 2012, having coached the Lions for 46 seasons. Freeh publicly admonished his reaction to the Sandusky allegations.

Mitchell found that the school implemented virtually all of the Freeh report's recommendations concerning safety, risk management, human resources, youth programming and athletics. He released a glowing report this month on the university's progress in complying with the integrity agreement signed in the wake of the Freeh report.

Mitchell did not make formal recommendation regarding any of the remaining sanctions: a $60 million fine for the Penn State athletic department; the vacating of 111 wins from 1998 to 2011; and a four-year postseason ban covering the 2012-15 seasons. However, the NCAA allowed that its executive committee “may consider additional mitigation of the postseason ban in the future, depending upon Penn State's continued progress.”

“This is a good first step, but it's not nearly enough,” PSU trustee Anthony Lubrano said. “The NCAA needs to publicly acknowledge wrongdoing.”

The decision to pull back on some of its sanctions is almost as rare for the NCAA as the swift manner in which the organization implemented the penalties. The University of Miami, for example, was the subject of an NCAA inquiry that lasted more than two years. The school is awaiting the NCAA's findings.

“This decision (for reduction of sanctions) was not based on any request (from Penn State), but from observable changes in behavior and attitude (Mitchell) has noted under the leadership of the university,” said NCAA President Mark Emmert.

The football team is idle this week, and the university did not make players available to the media.

Staff writer Bob Cohn and State College-based contributing writer Anna Orso contributed to this report. Chris Adamski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-407-0736 or cadamski@tribweb.com.

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