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There is likely a substantial pocket of people who, after the NCAA wrought its judgment on Penn State this week, felt like the organization had stepped far afield and gone down some kind of uneasy road of moral authority. I can understand that.
For years, the governing body of collegiate athletics has been — right or wrong — the arbiter of what constitutes fair play and what represents impropriety within the walls of the stadiums and athletic departments.
But in moments of heightened awareness and concern, the focus shifts. Arkansas fans watched a beloved football coach implode in a matter of days, and an athletic director make an unpopular but fitting choice to end that man's tenure. In State College, Pennsylvania, an even more revered patriarch was ousted, then died, and now has a legacy flecked with humanity's general reproach for his inaction, largely because an athletic director (and a bevy of other administrators) made disastrous choices over a period of years.
We all like to pretend that the NCAA is nothing more than a regulatory body, one that makes certain that each game is played within certain acceptable confines and that no one player, coach, sport or institution is tainted by the zealousness of competition. What happened in Northwest Arkansas this fall was anything but a sweeping tragedy, even if personal lives of many were unduly affected by one man's acts and omissions. So the comparison of the hubris of Petrino and Paterno really begins and ends with them both being large fish in a medium-sized bowl, and having remarkably similar surnames.
That said, don't be so myopic to think that Jeff Long's decision to discharge Bobby Petrino was made in a vacuum. The NCAA lords over college athletics and has had a well-documented history of being intertwined in the most subtle machinations within an athletic department. For those that suggested that the organization did not have the power to impose $60 million in fines upon Penn State, or impact the educational tracks of young men by compelling them to transfer or attend school elsewhere, is this really that giant of a leap for the NCAA? This organization has crippled or shut down programs before for much less. It has imposed its judgments on those programs for unseemly tactics. Penn State students and fans recoiled at the horror of having its program effectively and forcefully dismantled, but realistically could offer no rebuttal.
The message Long sent to Petrino in April is that your 21 wins over two years, your exceptional performance in rebuilding a program in tatters in a matter of four seasons, and your extraordinary ability to cultivate a new, upbeat culture in the fan base are not worth anything if you are unprincipled. It wasn't sent out of fear of the NCAA's occasionally arbitrary hand, but was delivered with the underlying idea that no man should ever hold serve over the institution as a whole. Penn State abjectly and repeatedly failed when opportunities to check Paterno's power and influence were presented. The outcome was predictable, painful and almost beyond criticism, even as it tested our notion of what the NCAA could and could not do. Long was obviously not willing to risk a future fraught with questions about the football coach's propriety, feeling that a fleeting moment of weakness by Petrino might well augur something worse down the line.
The lack of temerity or forethought demonstrated at Penn State was in such sharp and sad contrast that it made all of us uneasy about the state of college athletics. Now we have a conclusive, hard example of just how costly a laissez-faire, money-first approach to football can be. While we all mourn the awful, surreal nature of Penn State's undoing, those of who admittedly embrace Hog sports a bit too tightly can at least draw some comfort from the fact that the man in charge is mindful of the place they hold in our culture.