Penn State deserves NCAA wrath

Originally Published: July 12, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

If Ohio State can't play in a bowl game this season because former Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel lied to NCAA investigators about his players' receiving free tattoos, how can Penn State play in the postseason after former coach Joe Paterno helped cover up the horrific actions of a serial child rapist?

[+] EnlargeLouis B. Freeh
William Thomas Cain/Getty ImagesFormer FBI director Louis Freeh's investigation found fault with the enitre Penn State culture.

If North Carolina can't play in the postseason this season because some of its players received improper benefits from agents and committed academic fraud, how can Penn State be eligible for the postseason after its former president and vice president, athletic director and legendary coach fostered a culture in which a pedophile used the school's facilities, sideline passes to games and bowl trips like candy to lure the young boys he molested?

And if USC was banned from the postseason for two years and lost more than 20 scholarships because the school failed to oversee the compliance of its most high-profile players, how can Penn State go unpunished by the NCAA when the university's most-high ranking officials failed to even do what was morally right when they learned young boys were violated and the victims and others were probably still at risk?

Let's face it: If the 267-page report released Thursday by ex-FBI director Louis Freeh didn't prove once and for all that Penn State displayed the dreaded "lack of institutional control" in its cover-up of allegations that former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky molested young boys, what in the world constitutes a major violation in the eyes of the NCAA?

Since Sandusky was indicted in November and tried and convicted last month, the NCAA has struggled with what role it should take in the Sandusky case, the most abhorrent scandal to ever rock intercollegiate athletics. Among the questions: Is it the NCAA's role to poke its nose in criminal cases, and what kind of precedent will it set?

The NCAA is awaiting Freeh's report and pending criminal cases to be finalized before choosing its course of action. NCAA president Mark Emmert wrote a letter to Penn State president Rodney Erickson on Nov. 17, and the NCAA is awaiting the school's response to his questions and concerns.

"Like everyone else, we are reviewing the final report for the first time today," NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said in a release Thursday. "As President Emmert wrote in his November 17th letter to Penn State President Rodney Erickson and reiterated this week, 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. We expect Penn State's continued cooperation in our examination of these issues."

During the previous seven months in which the Sandusky nightmare unfolded, I wasn't sure the NCAA should get involved. In fact, I didn't know if I even wanted the NCAA involved because the unimaginable scandal seemed so far out of its league.

But after Freeh's report revealed Paterno and others failed to notify the police about Sandusky's assaults of young boys in three separate incidents from 1998 to 2001, I think the NCAA should punish Penn State.

And the Nittany Lions should get hammered more than any other school in NCAA history.

The Sandusky case is as much about the culture of Penn State football under Paterno as it is about the individuals involved and the crimes committed. While Sandusky likely will die in prison after a jury convicted him of 45 criminal counts of abusing children, there are still remaining concerns about the environment at Penn State that allowed him to prey on young boys. It's clear Paterno's influence was grand and everyone else simply followed his lead on issues that related to football.

Freeh's report even suggested Penn State's compliance department was grossly understaffed.

Protecting Paterno's legacy and the reputation of his once-unsullied football program was paramount at Penn State, so much so that university officials ignored the well-being of children, the least protected among us.

"Taking into account the available witness statements and evidence, it is more reasonable to conclude that, in order to avoid the consequences of bad publicity, the most powerful leaders at Penn State University repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from the authorities, the Board of Trustees, Penn State community, and the public at large," Freeh said.

The Nittany Lions need a hard lesson to remind them of what really matters.

The details in Freeh's scathing report are chilling and the former federal judge was indiscriminate in assigning blame to those who allowed Sandusky's repulsive behavior to continue. The Penn State scandal started at the very top with former president Graham Spanier and extended all the way down to a temporary janitor, who delivered perhaps the most damaging assessment of the culture.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Charles LeClaire/Getty ImagesJoe Paterno's unprecedented success granted him exceptional power at Penn State.

In fall 2000, according to Freeh's report, the janitor observed Sandusky molesting a young boy in the coaches' showers of the Lasch Building. The janitor said Sandusky had the boy pinned against the wall and was performing oral sex on him.

Stunned by what he had witnessed, the janitor immediately told a coworker what he saw.

According to the report, the janitor told a coworker that night that he had "fought in the [Korean] War [and] seen people with their guts blowed out, arms dismembered."

"I just witnessed something in there I'll never forget," the janitor told his coworker, according to the report.

But even after a senior custodial employee advised the janitor that he could report the incident to police, and that his coworkers would stand by him if he did, the janitor said, "No, they'll get rid of all of us."

According to the report, the janitor's coworker later told the Special Investigative Counsel chaired by Freeh that reporting the rape "would have been like going against the president of the United States in my eyes."

"I know Paterno has so much power, if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone," the coworker told investigators.

So like everyone else at Penn State who was aware of Sandusky's alleged abuse of young boys, the janitor remained silent. That's how much power Paterno wielded after coaching more than five decades at the school. And that's how important preserving his legacy was to the school's administrators, who were apparently above him only in title.

"Our most saddening and sobering finding is the total disregard for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims by the most senior leaders at Penn State," Freeh said, during a news conference Thursday in Philadelphia. "The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized."

Spanier, former vice president Gary Schultz, athletic director Tim Curley and Paterno did more than protect Sandusky for more than 14 years. When Sandusky retired in 1999, a year before the janitor witnessed him sexually assaulting a young boy, Penn State officials sent him out with a golden parachute -- a lump sum payment of $168,000 -- and allowed him to walk away as a revered member of the football program, instead of as a child rapist.

In handwritten notes from Paterno, which were turned over to the Special Investigative Counsel, the iconic coach wrote he regretted not telling Sandusky to walk away sooner from The Second Mile -- a charity Sandusky founded -- so his trusted assistant could have focused on becoming his eventual successor.

When Sandusky was weighing retirement in 1999, Curley noted that Paterno gave him "the option to continue to coach as long as [Paterno] was the coach." If Sandusky chose to retire, Paterno even suggested another position for him as "Volunteer Position Director -- Positive Action for Youth."

In 2001, after former Penn State assistant Mike McQueary witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in a shower, Schultz helped The Second Mile acquire a university-owned parcel for the same price the school paid a couple of years earlier. Even though Schultz investigated McQueary's claims only a few months earlier, he helped Sandusky continue his efforts with The Second Mile, which was established to help troubled kids.

Freeh said, "There's more red flags here than you could count over a long period of time." But to protect Paterno and themselves, Penn State's administrators chose to ignore those warning signs.

During the next several months, the NCAA will weigh whether the Nittany Lions will face on-field sanctions for the Penn State administration's lack of action in stopping a child predator.

Fortunately, Freeh and his group already have done the NCAA's work. If a massive cover-up of a child rapist's disgusting actions isn't a major violation, I'm not sure anything else is.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball

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