By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) Hard work by conscientious adults against a poisoned Penn State culture has been rewarded.

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In a careful, nuanced action with effects both symbolic and practical, the NCAA has strengthened the position of those fighting to restore a proud university’s good name, and dealt a blow to the amoral cultists only concerned with the pursuit of ghosts.

Former Senator George Mitchell recently released his “First Annual Report” in his role as independent monitor of the school’s compliance with the Athletics Integrity Agreement forged in the wake of the football program’s child-rape scandal. In it, he lauded those moving swiftly and successfully to implement reforms set forth in the Freeh Report, “notwithstanding heightened public scrutiny and continuing debate throughout the past year about the Consent Decree and its impact.”

On his specific recommendation, the NCAA agreed to soften the scholarship restrictions it had previously imposed and outlined a path to more easing, should Penn State continue to make changes pursuant strictly to Freeh’s plan.

This is a good thing.

Even while trying to bring sunlight to their infected community as they distribute tens of millions of dollars to 30 victims and counting, the trustees on the right side of history have been afforded little opportunity to feel any warmth. Instead, attention has been paid to the continuing insurrection by the Church of Paterno – the constituency still unable to reconcile their demigod’s actions and inactions that clearly facilitated multiple crimes against innocent children.

Adopting the familiar tactics of Holocaust deniers, 9/11 “truthers” and Roswell UFO theorists, the rank-and-file JoeBots have become a silly circus: ringmaster Franco Harris and unemployed media lampreys rousing small pockets of rabble that attempt to disrupt board meetings while waving cardboard cutouts and hand-scrawled placards, babbling contorted arguments that often come terrifyingly close to excusing a convicted child-rapist.

But the groundswell did succeed in electing new, quixotic trustees who ran on the platform of rejecting the Freeh Report’s findings and the ensuing Consent Decree. They want to make it all un-happen, cooking up various alternate realities that could somehow justify Paterno’s posthumous restoration.

Mitchell was talking about them when he told Tuesday that this was positive reinforcement for officials taking difficult action “with a divided Penn State community to deal with.”

The reaffirmation of the Freeh Report and the acceptance of it in full by the university are critical, because invalidating Freeh’s damning findings is central to the position of the board-level JoeBots. As the NCAA makes clear in its official statement, the reallocation of scholarships is a direct reward for the “initial implementation of all the Freeh Report recommendations.”

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Ratification of Freeh is a gut-punch to the lunatic fringe. To them, Freeh’s evidence and reasonable conclusions cannot be true, because Paterno’s role in the wrongdoing is so clearly described. They claim the board rushed to judgment in firing him, and hurried to accept Freeh’s findings.

This savvy political maneuver by Mitchell has effectively exposed these Paterno “truthers” while reinforcing the efforts against them.

On one hand, he is bolstering the progressives in the culture war by getting them something tangible for their success to this point in pushing against countervailing forces. It’s not so much the scholarships themselves as the carrot they represent. He’s sending the message to the larger university community that continuing the good fight is well worth it, to the extent they are concerned about on-field success.

On the other he’s trapping the JoeBots, forcing them to come clean. If they truly have the best interests of the school at heart, he’s indicating, they should support the continued course of applying the Freeh reforms that aid Penn State and clear the program’s path to re-emergence beyond the taint of scandal.

It’s too bad, of course, that this remains all about football. Sadly, it is still the only context or currency understood by too many in central Pennsylvania, which indeed is the fundamental problem. Yet it means something that this has finally been recognized, with the understanding that it can be cured only over years, and with the kind of structured guidance to which Penn State appears committed.

A significant part of that process is letting the Paterno crazies fall away, as everything else moves beyond them to become something different and healthier. As they fulminate over the fate of the evil dead, other, better people seem steadfast in their dedication to Penn State’s new life.

The twisted, intransigent movement appears headed toward inevitable conflict as Mitchell and the NCAA have now accelerated its drift to the margins.


Dan Bernstein

Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.

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