Pennsylvania State University is being urged by legal experts and educators to shut its football program after an investigation found officials covered up a child sex-abuse scandal involving a former assistant coach.
National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert said this week that he hadn’t ruled out any punishment for the football program, including the so-called death penalty, a temporary ban from competition.
The State College, Pennsylvania-based school should levy the punishment upon itself or the NCAA should enforce its most stringent discipline, said Geoffrey Rapp, a sports law professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio.
“The only punishment that really fits this crime is the death penalty,” Rapp said in a telephone interview. “This ultimately is a failure at the highest level, and the death penalty really addresses the institutional culture that’s at fault in this case.”
A football shutdown would cost the school and surrounding community more than $70 million, according to an economic study.
Louis Freeh, a one-time director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, released a 267-page report last week saying ex-football coach Joe Paterno, former university president Graham Spanier, 64, and other Penn State officials failed in their duties to protect children from abuse by Jerry Sandusky, an assistant coach for 31 years.
University officials didn’t report allegations of sexual abuse against Sandusky, or take the steps necessary to ensure that it didn’t happen in the future, according to the investigation. Sandusky, 68, was convicted last month on 45 criminal counts tied to the abuse of 10 boys over a 15-year period.
The Freeh report highlights the disproportionate amount of power awarded athletic programs, according to Jason Lanter, a professor of psychology at Pennsylvania's Kutztown University, located northwest of Philadelphia, and former president of the Drake Group, a group that defends academic integrity from the sports industry.
“The larger cultural-systemic issue that the Freeh report highlights is deference for athletics, in this case football in State College,” Lanter, 39, said in a telephone interview. “I’d like to see Penn State put the hammer down and say, ‘We understand it’s going to do damage to the NCAA, to the Big Ten, to Penn State, but we need to throw football on the back burner for a year or two to figure stuff out.’”
Freeh said there was “an excessive focus” on sports at Penn State, with the athletic department perceived as “‘an island’ where staff members lived by their own rules.”
Penn State Board Chairwoman Karen Peetz said yesterday that a special task force is “evaluating the fundamental culture” of the school. In an e-mail to alumni, she stressed the importance of rebuilding transparency and accountability.
NCAA spokesman Bob Williams didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment on Peetz’s statement.
Peetz also announced yesterday that she had accepted the resignation of Steve Garban from the board. Garban had served on the board for 14 years, including a stint as chairman in 2010-11 that included the period when the Sandusky scandal first became public.
Paterno, who was fired in November after charges were filed against Sandusky, won a Division I-record 409 games over 46 years as the Nittany Lions’ coach. He died of lung cancer in January at the age of 85.
Emmert told the Public Broadcasting Service this week that he is awaiting the school’s response to Freeh’s report.
“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.
Penn State intends to respond to the NCAA’s request for information over the next several days, according to Rodney Erickson, Spanier’s successor as president. University spokesman David La Torre said in an e-mail that the school had no further comment on possible NCAA action.
Penn State could lessen possible punishment from the NCAA by announcing self-imposed sanctions, Rapp said. He said that despite Freeh’s conclusion that administrators tried to cover up the allegations, the school could demonstrate remorse and dedication to uncovering the truth.
“A school being forthright and contrite makes the NCAA less likely to impose its most Draconian sanction,” said Rapp, 36.
The Indianapolis-based NCAA, the governing body of college athletics, has imposed the death penalty five times, and only once at football’s top level.
Southern Methodist University’s football program was shut down in 1987 after it was revealed that 13 players received a total of $61,000 from a slush fund provided by a booster. The Dallas-based school was unable to field a team the following season and had one winning record in the 20 years after it returned in 1989.
“The faculty were very much involved in this governance restructuring and most of the persons I knew welcomed a breather from the football culture,” SMU law professor Peter Winship, president of the Faculty Senate in 1987-88, wrote in an e-mail. “While appalled at the behavior of Paterno and the Penn State administration, I do not think that there is a sufficient nexus between Sandusky’s abuses and the football program to deserve the death penalty.”
The Penn State scandal presents a unique case to the NCAA because it dates back decades and didn’t necessarily give the football team a competitive advantage, Lanter said.
“This is not your standard infraction case, it’s a larger loss of morals, morals that have been degraded by the spectre of money,” Lanter said. “It comes down to a very simple decision that Paterno, Spanier and the other executives did face, and that’s morals versus money. Which is more important to them, and they chose the money route in terms of trying to placate the situation and try and cover it up.”
The calls for a shutdown aren’t universal.
David Ridpath, a sports administration professor at Ohio University in Athens, said the NCAA doesn’t have grounds for action based on Freeh’s report.
“The bylaws as written do not address criminal matters even if there is pervasive involvement by the football staff,” Ridpath wrote in an e-mail. “This is a matter for the criminal justice system and higher education accrediting bodies.”
Ellen Staurowsky, a sports management professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, agreed. She said in a telephone interview that the NCAA may not be the appropriate organization to issue punishment, given its financial interest in the case. In 2010-11, according to its website, 81 percent of the NCAA’s $845.9 million revenue came from television and marketing-rights fees.
“The NCAA has attempted to straddle two worlds, on one hand this highly commercial, entertainment-driven culture, along with the educational culture,” she said. “Part of the criticisms that have rightly arisen about the NCAA is an inability to reconcile value systems that exist in those two different domains.”
Even if the NCAA decides it can’t impose strict punishment based on the Freeh report, it could uncover violations of its rules by investigating the Penn State athletic program, according to Rapp and Warren Zola, a sports law professor and assistant dean of graduate programs at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College in Massachusetts.
“Virtually any school that goes through a complete audit seems to be exposed somehow,” Zola said in a telephone interview.
Football games draw 100,000 fans to Beaver Stadium on a half-dozen Saturdays each year, with the crowds spending money on food, drinks and souvenirs.
The Nittany Lions football program brings about $70.2 million in direct business to the state, of which $50 million benefited Centre County, where Penn State is located, according to an economic study commissioned by the school for the 2008-09 academic year.
In the fiscal year ending in 2011, the athletic department generated $116.1 million in operating revenue and posted a $14.8 million operating profit. The surplus helped pay for maintenance and building projects within the department.
If football’s revenue and expenses were eliminated from the budget, the university would have posted a loss of $29.1 million on $57.2 million of revenue, according to the school’s records. Penn State, with a undergraduate student population of about 37,000, would have to make up the difference or cut programs to pare its expenses.
“The alumni are the people with disposable income,” Ian Aquilino, 21, a senior actuarial science major, said in a telephone interview. “I think their trips would be less frequent.”
-- With assistance from Jeanna Smialek in New York and Rob Gloster in San Francisco. Editors: Larry Siddons, Jay Beberman