- Don Van Natta Jr., ESPN Senior Writer
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Nike co-founder Phil Knight said Monday that Joe Paterno was unfairly maligned by the "unjustified and unsubstantiated" findings of the Freeh report.
Knight also lashed out at the NCAA, saying it was "simply grandstanding" when it used the Freeh report to punish Penn State's football program with "totally unwarranted" sanctions.
For Knight, the comments represent another reversal in his judgment of Paterno, a personal hero whom Knight stood by after his death in January 2012. Last July, Knight was chastened by the Freeh report's conclusion that Paterno was part of a systemic cover-up that had protected former Penn State assistant Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted last year of 45 counts of child sexual abuse.
"According to the investigation, it appears Joe made missteps that led to heartbreaking consequences," Knight said. "I missed that Joe missed it, and I'm extremely saddened on this day."
But on Monday, Knight acknowledged he had issued that statement without having read all 267 pages of the report.
"When I later took the time to do so, I was surprised to learn that the alarming allegations, which so disturbed the nation, were essentially theories and assertions rather than solid charges backed by solid evidence," Knight said in a 280-word statement provided to "Outside the Lines" by his wife, Penny. "On reflection, I may have unintentionally contributed to a rush to judgment."
Knight declined a request to comment further. His statement comes one day after the Paterno family released a 238-page rebuttal to the university-commissioned inquiry of former FBI director Louis J. Freeh. Experts hired by a law firm representing the Paterno family, including former attorney general Dick Thornburgh, called the Freeh report a "failure" that is loaded with errors, disputed allegations, personal opinions, unsubstantiated theories and bias.
Knight targeted his most scathing comments at the NCAA, which has schools that have signed lucrative sponsorship arrangements with Nike worth tens of millions of dollars.
"Additionally, the NCAA's actions are exposed as totally unwarranted," he said. "The NCAA acted outside its charter and rendered judgment absent any kind of investigation or judicial hearing. It was simply grandstanding."
The NCAA has declined to comment on the Paterno family report. On Sunday, Freeh released an emphatic defense of his 267-page report, saying that "e-mails and contemporary documents from 2001 show that ... four of the most powerful officials at Penn State agreed not to report Sandusky's activity to public officials." Freeh also called the Paterno family report "self-serving," though he did not address many of the specific criticisms of his work by three experts hired by the Paterno family.
Knight's remarks against the NCAA are another signal that a seething pro-Paterno camp is plotting a lawsuit against the NCAA in a bid to overturn the Penn State sanctions and try to clear Joe Paterno's name.
Eleven days after the Freeh report was released, the NCAA bypassed its usual investigation and used the report's findings to hit Penn State's football program with historic sanctions, accepted by Penn State president Rodney Erickson. The sanctions included a four-year bowl ban, a $60 million fine and the erasure of 112 wins by Paterno from 1998 through 2011.
On Sunday, Wick Sollers, the Paterno family lawyer, declined to say whether a lawsuit is in the works against the NCAA. But sources say a large group of plaintiffs, including students, faculty, alumni, members of Penn State's board of trustees and the Paterno family, are discussing filing a lawsuit against the NCAA in the coming weeks. The NCAA is already fighting a lawsuit filed by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a member of Penn State's board of trustees, seeking to overturn the sanctions.
The Paterno family's bid to persuade the public to read its report and reconsider Freeh's findings continues this week. Joe Paterno's widow, Sue, will appear Monday on Katie Couric's TV show. And Jay Paterno, Joe Paterno's son and a former assistant coach at Penn State, had a round of interviews Monday with ESPN.
At the coach's memorial service in State College on Jan. 26, 2012, Knight delivered an impassioned defense of Paterno's role in the Sandusky matter as he criticized Penn State's board of trustees, which fired Paterno on Nov. 9, 2011, after he'd served 46 years as head coach.
"Whatever the details of the investigation, this much is clear to me: If there is a villain in this tragedy, it lies in that investigation, not in Joe Paterno's response," Knight said then.
When he asked, "Who is the real trustee at Penn State University?" the question brought a roaring crowd to its feet, including members of Paterno's family. Knight didn't know all the facts; he just believed in Paterno, whom he said had become one of his closest friends.
But after the Freeh report, Knight reversed himself. Nike announced that the child-care center at its corporate headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., would no longer be named after Joe Paterno.
Since then, Knight has said nothing about Paterno, who always wore black Nike sneakers beneath his rolled-up khakis. Paterno earned millions in endorsement contracts from Nike. Knight said in his statement on Monday that he decided to say something publicly after reading the report by the law firm hired by the Paterno family, King & Spalding, including analysis by Thornburgh and former FBI profiler James Clemente.
"When this tragic story first unfolded, Joe cautioned all of us to slow down and carefully gather the facts before jumping to conclusions," Knight said Monday. "We owed it to the victims, he said, to get to the truth. It was counsel we all should have followed." He concluded, "And while some may still debate the who, what, when, where, why of this sad case, the clear villain, as Jim Clemente notes, is Jerry Sandusky himself."
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