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NCAA's involvement with Penn State penalties flawed from the start

1/17/2015
Play4:08
Penn State Wins Restored

The NCAA announced that Penn State's football team is getting back 112 wins which were taken away during the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. Joe Paterno's son Jay joins Bob Ley today on Outside the Lines to discuss today's news.


A name and a number are grabbing headlines Friday after the NCAA reached a settlement in the lawsuit filed against the association by two Pennsylvania state officials.

The name is Joe Paterno, the late Penn State football coach. The number is 409, the total victories Paterno's record once again displays, making him college football's winningest coach.

But Friday's settlement is really about four letters -- NCAA -- and the four-letter words that should be used to describe its repeatedly shoddy approach to crisis management. Two and a half years after the NCAA stepped into uncharted waters, opting to levy historic penalties against Penn State and its football program in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal, the association sunk.

"The NCAA," Pennsylvania state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said, "has surrendered."

Corman and state Treasurer Robert McCord justifiably claimed victory in their lawsuit against the NCAA. Friday's settlement invalidates the consent decree Penn State had agreed to in July 2012, and all the remaining penalties imposed on the university, including the 112 vacated wins in football between 1998 and 2011.

The NCAA's intent in pursuing penalties against Penn State was understandable, perhaps even justified, but its methods were flawed right from the very start: July 23, 2012.

Hours after NCAA president Mark Emmert announced historic sanctions against Penn State, penalties the school had agreed to by signing a consent decree, I spoke via phone with Oregon State president Ed Ray, the chair of the NCAA's executive committee. Ray had attended the NCAA's news conference in Indianapolis that day, before flying back to Oregon.

In the interim, Penn State president Rodney Erickson had told media outlets that if he hadn't signed the consent decree, the NCAA would have imposed the so-called death penalty on Penn State's football program, suspending play for the 2012 season.

So I asked Ray about the possibility of imposing the death penalty:

President Erickson was quoted today as saying that Penn State accepted that deal because if not, you would have decided to suspend play. Can you confirm that?

Ray: I've known Rod for a long time. I didn't hear what he said. I was on a plane flying back to Oregon. But I can tell you categorically, there was never a threat made to anyone about suspension of play if the consent decree was not agreed to.

So it wasn't as though you said, "Take this deal or we're shutting you down"?

Ray: That was never even a point of discussion within either the executive committee or the Division I board.

So right away, there were questions about how the NCAA had gone about obtaining the consent decree. Emmert had made the decision to step into the mud, and he seemed to get dirty right away.

Penn State bought the apparent bluff at the time, but now it's the NCAA that's folding.

The NCAA's news release announcing the settlement begins with the line: "Programs serving child sexual abuse survivors will now receive millions of dollars as part of the NCAA's proposed settlement with Pennsylvania state officials."

University of South Carolina president Harris Pastides, a member of the NCAA's board of governors, added in a statement: "Continuing this litigation would further delay the distribution of funds to child sexual abuse survivors for years, undermining the very intent of the fine. While others will focus on the return of wins, our top priority is on protecting, educating and nurturing young people."

That's true, but it's also well-spun. Make no mistake, this was a huge loss for the NCAA and once again underscored the association's dysfunctional approach to crisis management.

"The agreement we've reached represents a complete victory," Corman said at a news conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

He later likened the settlement to achieving the mercy rule.

"They were way behind in the case," he said.

Although Corman's political victory lap and sports-themed statements seemed inappropriate, given the sensitive and tragic nature of what went on at Penn State during Sandusky's tenure, he's right about the NCAA's rush to judgment. It was an incredibly emotional time, days after the university-commissioned Freeh report lambasted top Penn State officials, including Paterno, for their failure to take appropriate action against Sandusky when allegations first surfaced against the assistant coach.

There was unprecedented pressure on the NCAA from both the public and media to act. There also was the fundamental question of whether the NCAA had a role in punishing Penn State. This was new territory, and the NCAA, under Emmert's leadership, had to decide whether to cross into it.

Two and a half years later, it's clear the association veered far off course.

The problems were there from the start in the bumbling way Emmert approached Erickson about the death penalty and consent decree.

In a deposition obtained by USA Today, Erickson said Emmert told him, "Presidents want blood. He said they would like to shut your program down for multiple years; never seen them so angry or upset. He thought the only way to head this off would be to craft a package of what he said would be very, very severe sanctions; that he might -- he emphasized might -- be willing to get the boards to look favorably upon."

The NCAA contends that the presidents discussed the death penalty early in the process but removed the option before voting on sanctions. But according to USA Today, on the same day the sanctions were announced, David Berst, the NCAA's vice president for Division I governance, wrote in an email to the Conference Commissioners Association that many presidents had favored the death penalty.

People lied here, either to Penn State or to one another. The NCAA, known for being slow, finalized the Penn State penalties only 11 days after the Freeh report went public. The climate might have demanded action, but prudence would have been a better approach. Or avoidance, as difficult as that would have been.

Not surprisingly, much of the focus is on the restored wins, Paterno's legacy and what's next. Current and former Penn State players are tweeting #409, a tribute to Paterno's restored wins total. Many want the Paterno statue restored outside Beaver Stadium.

But this is far from over.

The NCAA said it will "aggressively defend" itself in the lawsuit brought by Paterno's family, which in a statement called Friday's proposed settlement "a great victory for everyone who has fought for the truth in the Sandusky tragedy."

The Paterno family statement adds of the sanctions: "It was a grievously wrong action, precipitated by panic, rather than a thoughtful and careful examination of the facts."

After what has surfaced about the NCAA's methods, there's truth to that.

Asked Friday at the NCAA convention whether he had any regrets in pursuing penalties against Penn State, Emmert replied, "We don't ever want to have to repeat this exercise."

It's important to know your limitations.

The NCAA didn't in the summer of 2012, and it paid the price in the winter of 2015.