The Repeal of the NCAA Sanctions: How Did We Get Here?
On a cold, snowy day in late October three years ago, Joe Paterno looked on from the press box as the Penn State student section crammed together behind the goalpost, anxiously awaiting a game-tying field goal attempt from Illinois kicker Derek Dimke. With Penn State leading 10-7, a field goal would force overtime, putting Paterno’s record-setting 409th win in jeopardy.
With the wind howling, the fans screaming, and snow flakes dancing through Beaver Stadium, Dimke’s 42-yard field goal sailed through the cold autumn air looking to dampen a night of festivities in Happy Valley. As an eerie silence crept over the nervous crowd, the ball smacked the right upright as time expired, preserving the victory and sending the players and coaching staff onto the field for a raucous post game celebration.
The ever-humble Paterno was given a postgame ceremony to honor the then 84-year old’s climb to the top of the record books, passing Grambling’s Eddie Robinson to become the winningest coach in Division 1 football history. Former President Graham Spanier and Athletic Director Tim Curley presented JoePa with a plaque that read, “Joe Paterno. Educator of Men. Winningest Coach. Division One Football.”
“Something like this means a lot to me, an awful lot. But there’s a lot of other people I’ve got to thank,” Paterno said in a postgame ceremony in the media room that was broadcast to fans still waiting in the stands to hear their beloved coach speak. He mentioned the groundskeepers, the resilient student-athletes, and the coaching staff, along with the fans that sat through bone-chilling temperatures to see what would be his last victory.
“For all the fans out there, thanks for sitting through that today,” he said with a smile. “You’ve got to be nuts!”
On Nov. 5, 2011, less than a week after the uplifting victory, a 23-page Grand Jury report rocked Penn State to its core. Former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was being tried on 52 counts of sexual abuse against 10 minors, and first-hand accounts from victims within the report were enough to make one feel nauseous. The report discovered that Sandusky had located and groomed victims through his charity organization, The Second Mile, and also implicated the alleged cover-up by several Penn State University officials, including Paterno, Spanier, and Schultz, in terms of whether they met ethical, moral, and legal obligations in reporting any suspected abuse.
On Nov. 9, the Penn State Board of Trustees accepted Spanier’s resignation, naming provost Rodney Erickson as the interim president. At the same meeting, the board rejected Paterno’s proposal to finish out the season and retire, and instead stripped him of his coaching duties immediately. After 61 years of service to Penn State, including 45 as the head football coach, including tw0 national championships and countless charitable donations to the university, Paterno was fired with a simple phone call after being handed an envelope at his State College home with a phone number scribbled inside.
Of course, the announcement came late in the evening, prime time for students upset about Paterno’s firing to take the streets and make their voices heard, despite the legendary coach telling kids to go home and study. Students shouted expletives about Sandusky, the police, and the media they believed so wrongly portrayed them in the news. Some threw rocks, others tore down lights and street signs, and a few destroyed every window of a media van and tip it over before getting maced by police.
The following morning, national media outlets chastised the students for their commitment to their former head coach over Sandusky’s victims. Former Onward State writer Ryan Kristobak criticized the students for acting out of passion, asking to show more decor and use sound logic before behaving poorly in a way that reflects negatively on the university.
“We have been worried about the unwarranted shame that Sandusky and those involved has brought to Penn State, but the shame is on us now,” Kristobak wrote. “Throughout the entire riot, students were screaming ‘WE ARE PENN STATE.’ However, if our actions last night are what Penn State symbolizes, than I want nothing to do with Penn State.”
Following a criminal trial that began during the summer at the Centre County Courthouse in Bellefonte, Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse, and sentenced on Oct. 9, 2012 to a minimum of 30 years and maximum of 60 years in prison.
And then there was the release of the Freeh report, a supposedly independent investigation led by former FBI director Louis Freeh into the handling of the Sandusky case by the university. Released on July 12, 2012, the report concluded that Paterno, Spanier, Curley and Schultz were complicit in “conceal[ing] Sandusky’s activities from the Board of Trustees, the University community and authorities.”
Shortly after the release of the Freeh report, the NCAA Board gave president Mark Emmert the power to take corrective and punitive action relative to Penn State, bypassing the NCAA’s usual investigative protocol. On July 23, 2012, Emmert announced “unprecedented sanctions” against Penn State, banning the football program from bowl games for four years, imposing massive scholarship reductions, and a fine of $60 million. Emmert also vacated all of Penn State’s victories from 1998 through 2011, erasing Joe Paterno’s 111 wins from his previous record of 409.
The sanctions took the form of a consent decree signed by Rodney Erickson, in which Penn State accepted the findings of fact by the NCAA and waived any right to appeal the sanctions.
Enter Jake Corman, a Republican member of the Pennsylvania State Senate, where he serves as Majority Leader and represents the 34th Senatorial District, which includes State College, since 1999. On Jan. 7, 2013, Corman filed a lawsuit to prevent the NCAA from using Penn State’s $60 million fine outside of the state lines.
While NCAA President Mark Emmert said that only 25 percent of the $60 million fine would be used for sexual abuse awareness programs within the state, Corman demanded that all $60 million should be used toward programs within Pennsylvania. In an article published by the Centre Daily Times, Corman said that although Penn State signed the consent decree, the NCAA’s plan to set up a task force to spend the money elsewhere violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.
While the lawsuit’s primary goal was to keep the fine within Pa., interesting tidbits about the relationship between the NCAA and the Freeh investigators began to emerge during the discovery phase, calling into question the appropriateness of the sanctions.
First, internal NCAA emails released on Nov. 4 as part of of Senator Corman’s lawsuit showed that NCAA officials questioned their own authority to sanction Penn State, banking on the idea that Penn State was “so embarrassed they will do anything” when it handed down its severe sanctions in July 2012.
Two days later, Commonwealth Court Judge Anne Covey ruled that the NCAA must provide 477 previously withheld documents and emails for review in response to the their claim for privilege within the next 7 days. Yikes.
Three days after the court ruling, more internal NCAA emails were released as part of a 325-page filing, displaying the organization’s methodical media strategy in levying sanctions against Penn State in order to to avoid bad publicity and skepticism. Although many of the emails seemed business as usual, one in particular stood out. After agreeing with Gene Marsh, 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.’”
In the days leading up to Mark Emmert’s press conference announcing the sanctions, The NCAA’s PR department engaged in a lengthy email chain attempting to craft the perfect statement to release announcing the sanctions to avoid public backlash.
“[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,” Vice President for Communications Bob Williams responded.
Concerned about his increasingly negative public perception, Emmert emailed Williams about how his Wikipedia page “grossly misses the mark in the Penn State decision,” and asked to have it fixed – during the most public investigation in the history of the NCAA. 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.”
Two days after the Wikipedia fun, a new 110-page filing from Corman’s case showed that the NCAA was in regular communication with the supposedly independent Freeh group during the Penn State investigation, even recommending search terms and questions for Freeh to use during its inquiry.
“Clearly the more we dig into this, the more troubling it gets,” Corman said on ESPN’s Outside the Lines following the release of the documents. “There clearly is a significant amount of communication between Freeh and the NCAA that goes way beyond merely providing information. I’d call it coordination … Clearly, Freeh went way past his mandate. He was the enforcement person for the NCAA. That’s what it looks like. I don’t know how you can look at it any other way. It’s almost like the NCAA hired him to do their enforcement investigation on Penn State.”
But wait, there’s more! The NCAA responded by putting up a new page on its website aimed at clarifying the Penn State consent decree, calling the last two weeks of hits a “misleading impression,” daring Senator Corman to bring the lawsuit to trial.
“When taken out of context, some of this material creates a misleading impression of the important issues related to the consent decree between the NCAA and Penn State,” wrote NCAA spokesperson Erik Christianson. “The NCAA believes the full story will emerge at the trial scheduled for January 2015.”
Well, that’s awkward. On Friday, the NCAA announced that it reached a settlement agreement in the lawsuit, replacing the consent decree and the sanctions it imposed with a new agreement. The 112 vacated wins are restored, and the NCAA also agreed to keep the $60 million fine within the state of Pennsylvania to benefit victims of child sexual abuse.
With the wins restored, Paterno once again takes his place atop the list of the winningest coaches in Division 1 football history, much to the delight of the Paterno family, past and present football players, and the Penn State community.
Speaking to the media on Friday to address the settlement he so tirelessly worked for, Corman took a moment to criticize the NCAA, calling out the organization for financial motivations, stating that it should consider putting some of the college basketball tournament money towards an important issue like child abuse.
“Today is a victory for due process. Today is a victory for the people of Pennsylvania. Today is a victory for Penn State Nation,” Corman said. “The NCAA has surrendered. This is a total repeal of the consent decree, not a settlement. This is akin to the mercy rule. Clearly [the NCAA]was way behind in the case and they gave up.”
He even got to break the news to the matriarch of Penn State on the thrilling restoration of one of the family’s most cherished achievements.
— Onward State (@OnwardState) January 17, 2015
It’s been a long, winding road to finally claw out from under the weight of the sanctions, but the university has prevailed, in large part due to the selfless determination of a Penn State graduate turned state senator from Bellefonte.