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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Will the Penn State sanctions change college football?

Penn State running back Stephfon Green (21) runs

Penn State running back Stephfon Green (21) runs past Ohio State defensive back Orhian Johnson (19) on his way to a 39-yard touchdown in the first half. (Nov. 19, 2011) Credit: AP

The forces of sanity in and around college football have been fighting -- and losing -- the good fight for more than a century now.

So though the particulars of the Penn State scandal are uniquely disturbing, it was difficult not to view the NCAA's response to it Monday as another futile stab at an unsolvable problem.

Sure, there's nothing wrong with trying when it comes to cleaning up ethical cesspools, even if in this case, as usual, innocent members of the school community will pay for the sins of others.

And even if in this case, the NCAA expanded its mandate and set a precedent that will complicate future cases.

NCAA president Mark Emmert justified the sanctions by warning "one of the grave dangers stemming from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fail. Indeed, even too big to challenge."

Quaint. But looming on the horizon as he spoke was an unprecedented avalanche of money that will make it more difficult than ever for schools to think and act clearly.

The approval of a four-team playoff starting with the 2014 season, rights to which will be negotiated this fall, will generate fees never before seen in collegiate sports.

Total cost for all the major bowls, including the playoffs? Perhaps $600 million a year. And that doesn't include the bidding from prospective host cities for the new grand finale. But no one truly knows yet.

"There's no real rationality to this," said Neal Pilson, a consultant who is the former president of CBS Sports, and who proposed an eight-team playoff in 1992.

"It's going to be based on competition, emotion, the needs of particular broadcasters to have a big property."

That covers pretty much every broadcaster, but presumably the BCS incumbent, ESPN, more than most. ESPN is paying about $155 million a year for its current postseason college football package, which expires after 2013. Its recently announced new deal with the Rose Bowl alone will cost an average of $80 million per.

With Fox believed to be interested in a piece of the playoff action and NBC perhaps so, too, "escalation" appears inevitable, Pilson said.

The Penn State case and the NCAA's sanctions are highly unusual because they have nothing directly to do with competitive advantage. But they speak to the larger matter of the value of college football brands and the need to protect them at all costs. Not to mention the unchecked power of football coaches and their enablers.

In that sense, this case is tied to recent ones that led to sanctions against football powerhouses such as Ohio State, Alabama and Southern Cal, and to the dozens before them.

But might this one be so egregious it serves as a true wake-up call after all these years? It's pretty to think so. Let's start with a possibly more realistic goal, though.

The money is on its way and the pressure will be as strong as ever to do what is necessary to earn it. Pilson suggested that rather than fret over what is coming in, colleges worry more about what is going out.

"[Emmert] ought to be thinking about not trying to reduce the amount of money colleges earn from college football but develop a better allocating and sharing procedure," Pilson said.

Nothing wrong with that. But Penn State won't be sharing in the big money anytime soon, and will have to serve as an object lesson for its counterparts.

It's still a relatively new century. Maybe there's hope yet. If not, we can always try again in the next one.

New York Sports