Today, the NCAA announced significant reductions in its punishments for Penn State stemming from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Specifically, the school's four-year bowl ban has been lifted immediately, and starting next season, it will have all 85 of its scholarships restored. This, like all power moves by governing bodies, is bullshit.
It isn't bullshit in the sense that effectively halving the unprecedented sanctions—originally a $60 million fine, four year bowl ban, vacating of all wins from 1998-2011, and a four-year reduction of scholarships from 25 to 15—is necessarily wrong. Those punishments, levied on no authority stronger than public bloodlust and a university's capitulation to its own stoning, would never have been handed down by the NCAA in a sane world.
No, what's bullshit is how this is yet another grasp for power by the NCAA, according to which the problem in the Sandusky scandal wasn't corporate malfeasance, craven buck-passing, or a belief that sending the child rapist away would serve as a cure-all, but rather an outbreak of "football culture," a disease that they alone have the ability to contain.
The astonishing paradox here is how football culture is apparently all-powerful, and yet easily controlled. It leads, we're told, to academic fraud, safety concerns, and at times even the enabling of a child rapist, and yet it's nothing that a few scholarship reductions and a bowl ban or two won't clear up. Obviously, this is what's bullshit, the way the NCAA used the scandal to preserve the illusion of control—the illusion that there is someone out there policing all this stuff—and so argue for the necessity of its own existence.
By backtracking today—a process that actually began a year ago—college sports' moral authority figures get to seem reasonable. Thus they gain credibility in the eyes of the public (the unpleasant story about institutional collapse has, after all, largely died down) while also tacitly admitting that the original sanctions were more about public relations than true conviction. The NCAA simultaneously signals to its member schools that though it now has broad power to punish bad behavior wherever it's found, it remains a benevolent parent and will relent so long as you finish all of your chores on time and don't ask to go to the school dance before your grounding's up. And as a token of the NCAA's appreciation for not complaining too loudly under the association's fancy new belt, Penn State gets to move on from the whole ordeal, far less damaged than it once could have imagined.
It's fitting that the other big event of today involves a sports body-cum-moral arbiter dealing with its own failed power play. The NFL thought it could get its "the Almighty is a merciful one!" praise by gently smacking Ray Rice on the wrist, then tried to scramble into a more authoritarian pose once it realized it read the situation completely wrong. The NCAA knows the winning strategy: punish unreasonably first and relent later, never the opposite. The real lesson here for anyone seeking to maintain control is to always reach for more power; eventually your subjects will forget there was ever a time when you weren't in charge.