Emmert takes unprecedented steps for unprecedented sins

Penn State has avoided the dreaded NCAA “death penalty” – a ban on competition – for its cover-up of assistant coach Jerry Sandusky’s child sexual abuse. But the punishment announced Monday by NCAA President Mark Emmert nevertheless sends a strong message to college sports officials. Let’s just hope they hear it.

The message: That even highly profitable, revered sports programs will be held accountable for transgressions that once might have been considered outside the purview of NCAA action.

The tough penalties against Penn State include a $60 million fine, loss of bowl revenue, reduction in scholarships, a four-year postseason ban and vacated wins from 1998 to 2011. Current athletes may transfer to other schools without consequences.

Some critics argue that the NCAA’s discipline in such a case is unprecedented. Yes, but Penn State’s sins were unprecedented. Officials including the late coach Joe Paterno failed to report what they knew about Sandusky and his sexual abuse of young boys, sometimes on college property. By not acting, they allowed the abuse to continue.

If not for the bravery of one victim coming forth and triggering an investigation that led to many more victims, Sandusky might still be preying on children instead of going to prison. He was convicted last month on 45 counts of child sex abuse over a 15-year period.

The NCAA usually deals with less serious transgressions – recruiting violations, overzealous alumni funneling money to athletes or actions compromising athletes’ amateur eligibility. But what happened at Penn State – and what didn’t happen – called for extreme measures.

NCAA President Emmert, a Tacoma native and past president of the University of Washington, made the case for tough action against Penn State: He said it goes to the heart of “the ‘sports are king’ mind-set” prevalent at so many schools. That mind-set, that sports can become “too big to fail, too big to challenge,” led Penn State officials to put their football program above the safety of children.

Hopefully what happened to Penn State tells officials at other schools that their sports programs aren’t sacrosanct – no matter how much money they bring in or how rabid their alumni are – and that they are subject to institutional control.

If failure to recognize that could bring down someone as legendary as Paterno, it should serve as a valuable warning to others as well.