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New NCAA Emails Reveal PR Was A Motivation for Penn State Sanctions

More internal NCAA emails were released today as part of a 325-page filing in State Sen. Jake Corman’s lawsuit, displaying the organization’s very careful media strategy in levying its Penn State sanctions to avoid bad publicity and more skepticism over the sanctions’ appropriateness.

The filing includes a lengthy deposition from NCAA Vice President of Academic and Member Affairs Kevin Lennon as well as a number of emails from NCAA officials leading up to the sanction announcement on July 23, 2012. The filing is part of Corman’s fight to force the NCAA to turn over 477 emails it is trying to withhold as part of the lawsuit questioning the NCAA sanction’s legitimacy. You may remember Lennon from last week when his emails made national news for saying, in part, that the NCAA is “banking on the fact [Penn State] is so embarrassed they will do anything.”

Though many of the emails in the filing describe normal organizational business, one email seems peculiar. After agreeing with Gene Marsh, who acted as something of a liaison between the NCAA and Penn State at the time, that Penn State should not be sanctioned, Director of Committees on Infractions Shep Cooper wrote on July 4, 2012:

“FWIW, I agree. However, the new NCAA leadership is very image conscience and if they conclude that pursuing allegations against PSU would enhance the Association’s standing with the public, then an infractions case could follow. I know that Mark Emmert has made statements to the press indicating that he thinks it could fall into some sort of LOIC case. ‘Shooting road kill’ is an apt analogy.’”

Marsh responded “they should leave this one alone,” and continued to make arguments on behalf of Penn State to the NCAA. His advice was ignored two weeks later.

“It is fair that PSU would pay a heavy price. It is not fair that folks on the NCAA board would try to reform college athletics through one case,” Marsh wrote. “It’s starting to feel like that…How many institutions represented on the NCAA board could stand scrutiny on whether athletics is the tail wagging the dog?”

That image conscious mentality was a theme of the exhibits included with the depositions from Lennon and Vice President for Communications Bob Williams.

“I have given a great deal of thought to the matter at hand and my primary objective is to suggest a course of action that leaves you in the strongest possible leadership positions and corresponds to my personal sense of what it means to do the right thing when you know you will be criticized for whatever you do,” wrote Ed Ray, the chair of the NCAA executive committee, to Emmert two days before they announced the sanctions.

“I know you are already thinking about this, but we will need as well planned a media strategy as possible for the PSU case,” Emmert wrote to Williams.

The NCAA’s PR department engaged in a lengthy email chain in the days leading up to Mark Emmert’s press conference announcing the sanctions, nit picking bits of the statement it would release announcing the sanctions.

“[I am] tempted to add a Q&A question like ‘Did you work with Penn State in determining these penalties?’” wrote PR member Michelle Hosick. “We don’t want people to get the impression that this was a negotiated settlement…PSU didn’t have a say in the penalties,” Williams responded.

The image was so concerning to Emmert that he even emailed Williams about how his Wikipedia page “grossly misses the mark in the Penn State decision,” and asked to have the record set straight — which points to a sort of dubious priority. Williams forwarded the email on to his PR team, saying “I’m not sure what the process is for editing Wikipedia biographies but take a look and let’s put together an edited version of the PSU section.”

The NCAA also questioned its own enforcement of the penalties. Ray sent an email titled “The Sounds of Silence” to since-ousted Enforcement Director Julie Roe regarding whether the NCAA itself should commission an investigation of Penn State.

“The sounds of silence are not good,” Ray wrote to Roe on the day of the Freeh report release. “If Penn State could have Louie Freeh conduct an investigation over the last year, why haven’t we done anything?” Of course, the NCAA eventually relied on the Freeh report to issue its sanctions, saying that it couldn’t have done one more thorough.

The NCAA’s strong concern over its own publicity is at a level of irony I don’t know how to put in words. And these emails appear to be a harbinger of worse to come for the NCAA.

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About the Author

Tim Gilbert

Former Managing Editor of this site, now just makes lots of #content for it from the Phyrst’s Table 69. Senior from Philadelphia. First-generation Penn Stater. I might go to law school after this, but I might not, too. “For the Glory” is in my email signature because I’m a douche. [email protected] is my email if you want to tell me why I suck. Alternatively, you can call me out on Twitter @OlGilb.

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