The NCAA said Thursday it expects Penn State to answer a handful of crucial questions stemming from the child sex abuse case against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, any of which could result in sanctions against the school.
Whether that could include the so-called “death penalty” – where a program is shut down – seems unlikely, at least for now. That has happened just once, against Southern Methodist football in the 1980s. Current NCAA rules limit the penalty to college programs on probation that commit another major violation.
But NCAA leaders have indicated in recent months they are willing to use harsher penalties for the worst offenses. That includes postseason and TV bans, which haven’t been used extensively since the 1980s.
NCAA president Mark Emmert told Penn State in November that the organization would be examining the “exercise of institutional control” within the athletic department, and said it was clear that “deceitful and dishonest behavior” could be considered a violation of ethics rules. So, too, could a failure to exhibit moral values.
A searing report, commissioned by Penn State, found that beloved football coach Joe Paterno helped hush up allegations of child sex abuse against Sandusky. The report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh concluded that Paterno and three former administrators – President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz – “repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky’s child abuse.”
Sandusky is awaiting sentencing after being convicted of 45 criminal counts for abusing 10 boys over a number of years. Paterno died of lung cancer in January.
“Like everyone else, we are reviewing the final report for the first time,” said Bob Williams, the NCAA’s vice president of communications. The “university has four key questions, concerning compliance with institutional control and ethics policies, to which it now needs to respond. Penn State’s response to the letter will inform our next steps, including whether or not to take further action.”
Likely of particular interest to the NCAA were the report’s conclusions that the school had “decentralized and uneven” oversight of compliance issues.
“Certain departments monitored their own compliance issues with very limited resources,” the report found. Ensuring compliance with the federal Clery Act, which requires the reporting of crimes, was handled by someone with “minimal time.”
“One of the most challenging tasks confronting the university,” the report said, “is an open, honest and thorough examination of the culture that underlies the failure of Penn State’s most powerful leaders to respond appropriately to Sandusky’s crimes.”
A point potentially perilous to Penn State football – or its athletic department – has to do with an NCAA finding that major violations were the result of a lack of institutional control or a failure to promote an atmosphere of compliance.
“The NCAA will, I’m sure as their statement indicates, be working through the report of Judge Freeh, and we’ll have an opportunity to respond to the letter that I received from Dr. Emmert back in November,” Penn State President Rodney Erickson said. “Now that we have Judge Freeh’s report, we’re in much better position to respond to the list of questions that Dr. Emmert sent us, at that point, and we will be doing so over the next couple weeks.”
Newly hired coach Bill O’Brien joined university leaders in pledging to foster integrity and accountability following the release of the report. O’Brien, who succeeded Paterno, said in a statement that he was reading the findings to identify changes that need to be made in the football program.
“I stand with the university leadership in a shared commitment to driving a culture of honesty, integrity, responsible leadership and accountability at all levels,” he said.
Paterno, NCAA Division I’s football’s winningest coach with 409 victories, turned Penn State into a marquee program during his 46-year tenure which included national titles in 1982 and 1986.
Sandusky, who retired in 1999, was Paterno’s defensive coordinator on the title teams.
Freeh wrote in the report that a powerful “culture of reverence” for the football program existed at the university. But Erickson downplayed a suggestion that football had too much power at the university.
“I think that we should be careful that we don’t paint the entire football program over a long period of time with a single brush … these things happen in schools, in churches, in youth camps … all over,” he said.
Regaining the public’s trust in Penn State was an important goal for athletics, said the department’s acting director, David Joyner.
“Through these difficult times, we remain committed to the highest ideal and embodiment of the student-athlete, and we will emerge a stronger institution,” he said.