July 17 (Bloomberg) -- Severe penalties may be leveled against Penn State University’s athletic program after a report showed school officials covered up a child sex-abuse scandal involving a former assistant football coach, the president of college sports’ governing body said.
Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, said in an interview with the Public Broadcasting Service yesterday that he is awaiting Penn State’s response to the investigation conducted by former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh.
The report released last week said the school’s top executives, including former university President Graham Spanier and football coach Joe Paterno, concealed Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of children to protect the school from “bad publicity.”
“I have never seen anything as egregious as this in terms of just overall conduct and behavior inside a university and hope to never see it again,” Emmert said in an interview on PBS’s “Tavis Smiley” program.
He said a decision on penalties would wait until “actual charges” against Penn State are determined.
“And I don’t want to take anything off the table,” Emmert said.
The stiffest punishment in college sports is the NCAA’s “death penalty,” which can shut down an athletic program found to have violated the rules.
NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said in an e-mail that Emmert was unavailable to discuss the PBS interview.
David LaTorre of LaTorre Communications, an independent public relations firm working with the school, said in an e-mail that Penn State has maintained an “open dialogue” with the NCAA, and will answer all of the association’s questions following a thorough review of Freeh’s report.
Sandusky, 68, spent 31 seasons as a defensive assistant under Paterno. He was convicted last month on 45 criminal counts tied to the abuse of 10 boys over a 15-year period and is awaiting sentencing.
“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 at a press conference in Philadelphia on July 12. “The most powerful men at Penn State failed to take any steps for 14 years to protect the children who Sandusky victimized.”
Attorneys for Spanier say the Freeh report “contained numerous inaccuracies and reached conclusions that are not supported by the data,” without providing details. Paterno’s family said yesterday in a statement that it also disputed some of Freeh’s findings and was conducting its own review of the proceedings.
Mike McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont, said the NCAA likely will give more weight to the behavior of the athletic director and university executives than focus on Sandusky and Paterno.
“It was a departmental issue,” McCann said in a phone interview. “If they were to stop all sports for a year or two, they would likely say that this wasn’t just a football team situation, it was an institutional problem.”
If the NCAA levies the death penalty against Penn State, the financial losses would likely be debilitating, leaving non-revenue teams without funding and saddling the program with debt for years.
In the fiscal year ending in 2010, the football program generated $63.3 million of the department’s $106.6 million operating revenue and turned an operating profit of $49.2 million, according to the school’s revenue and expenses report for that year.
Scott Rosner, a sports business professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said Penn State would have a difficult case to make if it filed a lawsuit against the NCAA to recoup financial losses.
“They’d have to argue that what the NCAA was doing was beyond its purview as a governing body of intercollegiate athletics,” Rosner said in a telephone interview. “And that to do so would be an entirely and utterly implausible interpretation of their rule book.”
Emmert didn’t imply whether penalties would be targeted at the football program, or the entire athletic department since Tim Curley, then the athletic director, and other university officials allegedly were involved.
Paterno was fired in November after charges were filed against Sandusky. The Nittany Lions’ coach for 46 years and the winner of a Division I-record 409 games, Paterno died of lung cancer in January.
On campus, the group that manages the encampment of students at Beaver Stadium known at “Paternoville” in honor of the former football coach, changed the location’s name to “Nittanyville” yesterday, calling it a “new era in Nittany Lion football.”
Southern Methodist University received the death penalty in 1987 when it was revealed that 13 players had received a total of $61,000 from a slush fund provided by a booster. The NCAA canceled SMU’s 1987 season and allowed it to play just seven games -- all on the road -- in 1988.
“This is completely different than an impermissible benefits scandal like (what) happened at SMU, or anything else we’ve dealt with,” Emmert said. “There have been people that said this wasn’t a football scandal. It was that, but much more. And we’ll have to figure out exactly what the right penalties are.”
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