The NCAA does a lot of stupid things with regard to punishing college sports programs for rules violations. Take, for example, punishing Ohio State because some of its student athletes accepted tattoos as gifts.
In case you've been living under a rock, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 40-something counts of diddling little boys, and late (legendary) head coach Joe Paterno, the school's athletic director and presidents were implicated by an independent investigator as having covered up the crimes (as in, someone caught Sandusky molesting a child, went to his superiors, and they basically said, no we're not going to the authorities with this; it'd be bad for Penn State football).
There was a due process thing going on with Sandusky, he's never going to see the outside of a jail cell, his victims are going to continue getting whatever help they've needed and now that he's been convicted, some of them will probably sue the school.
The NCAA, which doesn't usually go after crimes – just programs violating its rules – came down really hard on Penn State. There's a $60 million fine involved (that money will be paid over five years to an independent program that works to prevent child abuse). The school is going to lose some football scholarships. They won't be eligible for post-season play for a few years. And every win they've had since 1998 is vacated (which is a weird thing the NCAA likes to do). Additionally, the players on Penn State's roster can transfer schools without penalty (typically, transferring students have to sit out a year while they get acclimated academically).
This means that Penn State's going to have a tough time recruiting top players the next few years, their current good players are going to leave, and essentially the football program is going in the toilet for the next decade or so.
There's a lot of collateral damage, too: football is a financial driver for other sports (you don't think fencing brings in enough revenue to pay for its scholarships, do you?); merchandise sales are probably going to dip if the team stinks; local businesses will suffer if people aren't going to games because the team stinks.
The NCAA claims that they want to change the culture that football is king and that the safety of the community should come first. I'm calling bullshit on the reasoning – if the NCAA stopped cashing in big on college football, they could play holier-than-thou, but that's not going to happen – but here's why I don't have a problem with the punishment:
Because of the cover-up (not Sandusky's crimes), the football program that was being presented to recruits, parents, fans and media was different from the program that really existed.
Let me say it again.
The program being sold was a lie.
If you're the parent of a four-star recruit, are you letting your 17-year old go to place where you know the assistant coach might fondly your kid in the shower? Hell no.
If you're an honors student involved as a volunteer in child welfare organizations considering Penn State, are you going to a school where the high-profile football program is destroying kids' lives and covering it up so you can make more money? Hell no.
As a football program and as a university, Penn State gained so much from the cover-up that only a forced culture change could get the community on the road to healing. And that's what the NCAA did.
No doubt Paterno did a lot of good for the university, by the way. Taking down his statue may have been cathartic, but for all the evil he did in the cover-up, he also put a lot of money back into the university, ponying up enough to put his name on the library. Time's going to heal his legacy, even if taking away 111 wins from his record moves him from first to 12th or 13th on the all-time wins list.