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Open Mike Column: Current players, including two from WNY, bear brunt of Penn State’s past mistakes

Akeel Lynch ran for a Monsignor Martin single season yardage record in leading St. Francis to a title in 2011. If he stays at Penn State, he’ll have no such chance at a conference or national title given the NCAA sanctions levied on the school. (File photo courtesy of Ron Larson)
We can’t help but think of Penn State University and its football program, known in the past for doing it the right way, and shake our heads with utter disgust at the travesty of the child sex abuse perpetrated by former defensive coordinator Jerry Sundusky and those in power at the school that could have helped stop it, but instead looked the other way for the good of the Nittany Lions’ name.

It’s almost unavoidable to not mull over the number of innocent victims, the children whose lives could have infinitely changed for the better if not for a total breakdown in institutional power and frankly, human decency during what amounts to a scandal that stretches back to 1998 and continued all the way until Sandusky’s indictment and the terminations of the college’s power brokers late last fall.

We may look at the NCAA dealing out harsh sanctions to the university in a ruling announced during a Monday (July 23) press conference and think that the college and football program got what they deserved for putting a sports program before the welfare of the youngsters who would not avoid the clutches of Sandusky.

Having any or all of these feelings certainly wouldn’t be wrong but when we do, it’s easy to lose sight of the other innocent people who ultimately pay the price for others’ wrongdoings, and that’s the current student-athletes playing in the football program.

What sometimes gets lost in punishing a university for past transgressions is the current student-athlete. Among those in the Penn State football program feeling the NCAA’s wrath are locals John Urschel, a Canisius High School graduate entering his junior year as an offensive lineman, and new Nittany Lions’ tailback Akeel Lynch, who graduated from St. Francis just this spring.

The NCAA hit Penn State with a $60 million sanction, a four-year football postseason ban, which gives the Nittany Lions no chance to play for a Big 10 Conference or national title during that time, and loss of 10 scholarships down from 20.

The Nittany Lions football program must also vacate all of their wins dating back to 1998, which costs the late Joe Paterno his all-time wins record among college football coaches and many players the memories of successes with their beloved alma mater. It could be argued that’s a fitting punishment for a coach, who’s reported lack of judgement has forever darkened what was a pristine reputation.

The NCAA is making an effort to protect current student-athletes from the penalties inflicted to the university by allowing all Penn State football players to transfer to another school without having to sit out a season. However, where are these players supposed to go so that they can feel comfortable and essentially not consider this a lost year with another program considering there is just a week or so left until most preseason practices get underway?

Permission-to-contact rules are being suspended by the NCAA, allowing other schools to have open discussions with Nittany Lions’ players, and Penn State cannot restrict in any way a student-athlete from pursuing a possible transfer. Student-athletes must simply inform Penn State of their interest in discussing transfer options with other schools, and interested schools also must inform Penn State of their intentions to open discussions with the student-athlete.

Lynch decided on Penn State last winter after it named a new coach in Bill O’Brien, who at the time was the offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, and seemed to be moving forward from the scandal. He had originally verbally committed to Boston College. The Toronto native simply wanted to live out a childhood dream by going to play for a team with an impeccable tradition, and one he adored since his mother returned from a trip to Pennsylvania with a Nittany Lions jacket for him as a young boy.

Lynch was convinced by O’Brien and his staff of the new direction the program was headed. He couldn’t have seen the knockout blow the Freed report would deal to the school and the sanctions that would follow about a week later. The retired FBI agent released a 200-page report chronicling the culpability of those in charge at Penn State, including school president Graham Spanier, and their failure to notify authorities of an incident with Sandusky and a child witnessed in 2002.

Lynch was trying to stay positive the day before the NCCA announcement, tweeting thoughts such as “I still bleed blue and white #WeStillAre #PennState” and “I find hope in the darkest of days,” but he and his new teammates had to be dealt a major blow when official word came down the next day about the four-year bowl and conference championship ban.

Afterward, he was still saying all of the right things, tweeting, “Don’t dwell on what went wrong. Instead, focus on what to do next. Spend your energies on moving forward towards finding an answer.” He then continued to give indications that he plans on staying and toughing it through at Penn State when tweeting, “You play whatever cards he deal no matter how peculiar,” the words of J.Cole in the rapper’s song “Enchanted.”

The move to stay would be a brave and bold one and a sign of his commitment as a person but the question remains, would it be the best decision? At a time like this in a young man’s life, would anyone really blame him for being a little selfish?

Regardless of the positive spin being put on the situation by many at the university, there are a few harsh realities about staying at Penn State that Lynch can’t get around. The worst for a competitive player such as Lynch may be that the 2011 Monsignor Martin champion for the St. Francis football team will never get to feel what it’s like to play in a bowl game or for a title on any level, unless he red shirts one year. But even by his fifth season with the program would Penn State really be ready to be a national or Big 10 contender or by then, be worse off than when he started?

Still, while opportunities have been taken away by staying at Penn State, they’ve also opened up. The Nittany Lions will lose athletes to transfers and not gain them back with the same speed considering the loss of scholarships, so a player with the talent of Lynch could be in the fold for playing time even sooner than anticipated. It’s already been reported that starting tailback Silas Redd, a junior, could be transferring to USC. Penn State and its players also won’t lack for exposure as the nation’s eyes will be on the program, which is already visible nationally with a big TV contract.

With these sanctions happening so late in the summer, Lynch, like many other freshmen and sophomore, may need to get a better feel for what it will be like over the first season and then decide what to do from there.

Williamsville’s Urschel has told local media that he’s committed to staying at Penn State but his situation is drastically different than that of Lynch and many of the new players in the program.

Urschel has already spent three years at Penn State — he red shirted his freshman year which gives him two years of eligibility left, and has already graduated with a degree in mathematics after six consecutive semesters with a 4.0 grade point average. He’s now working on his master’s degree and already established himself atop the depth chart at right guard entering training camp in August.

For many other football players now at Penn State, there is a cruel reality that comes along with this ruling and a difficult decision about their future that lies ahead. And to think Lynch probably thought picking a college would be the hardest thing he ever did.


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