In an unprecedented move, the NCAA Executive Committee announced Tuesday that it would reduce its penalty against Penn State by restoring scholarships to its football program faster than planned. Because of the school's "continued progress toward ensuring academic integrity," a release from the NCAA said, the team will be back to full-scholarship capacity for the 2016 season, rather than the 2018 season as originally planned.
The NCAA had never reduced its own penalties before Tuesday. "This should not be seen as a precedent for handling other cases," NCAA President Mark Emmert said during a teleconference announcing the move. The NCAA is reversing course little more than a year after levying a similarly unprecedented penalty of a four-year postseason ban, $60 million fine, and scholarship reductions against Penn State.
At the time, the NCAA bypassed its own process for meting out punishment, which calls for the organization to conduct an investigation and hold a Committee on Infractions hearing at which the school in question can respond to allegations. Instead, the NCAA used the findings of the damning Freeh report, which had been commissioned by the school's board of trustees, and Penn State agreed to comply with the ruling.
"We cannot look to NCAA history to determine how to handle circumstances so disturbing, shocking and disappointing," Emmert said in the statement at the time.
As recently as July, USA Today reported Penn State would likely ask the NCAA to reduce some of the sanctions. The NCAA insisted, however, that its decision wasn't triggered by a PSU request but rather at the recommendation of lawyer and former Senator George Mitchell, who is best known among sports fans for his report into the use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone in Major League Baseball.
"While there is more work to be done, Penn State has clearly demonstrated its commitment to restoring integrity in its athletics program," Mitchell said in a written statement. "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 also suggested a further reduction of the penalties against Penn State, including the postseason ban.
In their first year of the sanctions, the Nittany Lions finished 8-4 under first-year head coach Bill O'Brien in 2012. Penn State is currently 2-1 this season, with its next game against Indiana on Oct. 5.