Penn State: What Happens Next and What, If Anything, Can the NCAA Do?

Devin Higgins@DevinJHigginsContributor IIIJuly 12, 2012

According to the Freeh Report, former Penn St. head coach Joe Paterno participated in the cover-up of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky's crimes, forever destroying his legacy as one of the college football's great humanitarians.
According to the Freeh Report, former Penn St. head coach Joe Paterno participated in the cover-up of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky's crimes, forever destroying his legacy as one of the college football's great humanitarians.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Eight months and 267 condemning pages later, former FBI Director Louis Freeh announced his findings (via USA Today) of Joe Paterno and the Penn State University administration's roles in sheltering convicted pedophile Jerry Sandusky.

As if what's been brought to light since the scandal first broke last year wasn't bad enough, Freeh's report was even more damning.

"The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and blatant disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky's child victims. As the Grand Jury similarly noted in its presentment, there was no "attempt to investigate, to identify Victim 2, or to protect that child or any others from similar conduct except as related to preventing its re-occurence on university property.

Four of the most powerful people at the Pennsylvania State University - President Graham B. Spanier, Senior VIce President-Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley, and Head Football Coach Joseph V. Paterno - failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade."

Freeh went on to call the blatant disregard of the victims by the administration and Paterno as a means of protection against bad publicity, "Callous and shocking."

That doesn't begin to cover it.

There can be no dispute that Joe Paterno's legacy and all the acknowledged positives that did come out of his time in Happy Valley are forever tainted by the revelations in this case. For nearly five decades, Penn St. was seen as one of the last pinnacles of collegiate sports purity, built up on the creed, "Success with Honor". 

Clearly, that success came at a great cost in the last decade, and the entire administration sacrificed their honor and integrity to protect the "brand" of Paterno and the football program. 

The Board of Trustees may have earned some respectability by going through with the Freeh report and not allowing the actions of the former administration to be further swept under the rug. What is important to understand in a case like this is that when a cover-up is established, it's usually done to protect a select few from the scrutiny of those around them.

Based on the report's findings, Spanier and his staff, along with Paterno, seemed interested in only protecting their positions of authority over doing the morally proper thing and protecting the victims without informing law enforcement entities or the Trustees.

The question now becomes, what happens to both the university and the Nittany Lions, and what punishment does the NCAA hand down?

Does Penn State qualify for the dreaded "Death Penalty"?

The NCAA's repeat violator clause, also known as the "Death Penalty", was passed in New Orleans in 1986 at the height of multiple scandals including Clemson's steroids issues and SMU's paying of players over multiple years and despite numerous infractions being handed down.

Everyone knows what happened when the penalty was finally applied to SMU in 1986, and how long it has taken them to return to even competitive respectability in college football.

I have long held the personal belief that the NCAA will never use it again, no matter how egregious the crimes committed by an institution, not because of what it does to the student-athletes who would suffer under it, but rather because of the money they stand to lose by applying it to a marquis program like Ohio State, USC, Miami, Oregon, or Florida St., who've all been penalized or investigated in the last decade.


What sets Penn St. apart, however, is despite there being an established history of abuse by Sandusky, as well as the cover-up by the Paterno and the administration, this is the first time any of the incidents had been brought to light for the NCAA to scrutinize. There is no established record of the NCAA warning Penn St., or administering sanctions against them for ANY issue, let alone the actions of Sandusky.

So therefore, on its face, the NCAA can't apply the death penalty because Penn St. is outside the criteria for which it could be used against them. Like it or not, the program is a first-time offender and if chronic offenders like Miami, Florida St. and USC are given a stay of execution, then Penn St. will not be the next one to go.

Lack of Institutional Control

There can be little doubt that the Penn St. scandal will be seen as the poster child for "Lack of Institutional Control" based on the Freeh report's findings. From President Graham Spanier on down, there was a systematic attempt to suppress any and all knowledge of what Sandusky was doing to multiple victims on university grounds for over a decade.

They knew what was going on and did nothing but give the impression that all was wonderful in Happy Valley.

If that is not a lack of institutional control, then I'd love to see an example of what is.

The issue for the NCAA, however, is this:

Spanier is gone, as are Schultz and Curley. Joe Paterno is dead, and Jerry Sandusky was found guilty and will never see a day of freedom ever again.

And not one player who ever donned the blue and white for the Lions was ever implicated to have taken part in the conspiracy. There seemed to be a clear line of insulation set up by the administration and Paterno, so whatever decisions they made regarding Sandusky didn't trickle down to the locker room, forcing the players to either participate in the cover-up, or turn on a college football legend and bring him and their program down.


Based on that, if the NCAA decides to sanction the program by taking away scholarships or restricting bowl games, would it make sense to punish the players for something they took no part in?

The most common comparison I've heard in the last 24 hours is what the NCAA did to USC following the Reggie Bush scandal.

"Well they punished Matt Barkley and the guys who weren't there when Bush played because of what he and his family did." you might say. I get that. I really do.

Here's the difference though.

Reggie Bush and his family received improper money and benefits during his time at USC. He was working with an agent, even though it was clearly outlined that student-athletes were banned from doing so until they announced they would turn professional.

Yes, those players who came after him were punished along with the program and that may have been unfair. But it was also meant as a message to not only those players, but to other student-athletes and programs across the country that if you do likewise, you'll be punished in a similar fashion.

It's why critics have wondered why harsher measures weren't taken with Ohio St. in lieu of the Jim Tressel/Terrelle Pryor scandal and the Miami Hurricanes booster-pay scandal.

Whatever your opinions of the Penn St. case may be, the fact is that the NCAA is in truly uncharted territory in terms of administering any sort of punishment to the program, and whatever decision they will make will set a precedent, either good or bad.

I'm not surprised that they've taken their time in reviewing the case and see how it all unfolds, rather than making a knee-jerk reaction. To an extent, the NCAA should be commended for it.

Whatever happens next and whatever happens to Penn St. going forward, the damage has already been done and college football, as well as the landscape of American sports, will likely never be the same again. 


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