Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The NCAA dropkicks Penn State into extended purgatory

While still assessing the carnage from the Freeh Report, the NCAA hastily inflicts unprecedented damage upon Penn State, crippling the university, especially the football program, and punishing the innocent

The criminal proceedings were going well.

First, Jerry Sandusky, the monster who sexually abused children for decades, was getting a heaping dose of justice, swift and sure. He will spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Then the Commonwealth turned its focus toward the two Penn State administrators charged with perjury for allegedly lying to the grand jury and failing to report suspected child abuse, AD Tim Curley and VP Gary Schultz. Their day in court is coming (on Jan. 7, 2013). It seems possible others might be charged.

Steadily, justice was rolling.

Then along came the Freeh Report.

If you actually read the Freeh Report - the investigation into the Sandusky matter conducted for Penn State by former FBI Director Louis Freeh and released earlier this month - several things are evident.

  • It is extraordinary, and profoundly awful, that Sandusky wasn't thwarted sooner; several near-misses are enumerated in the Freeh Report. (And think about the near misses we don't know about.) You probably already knew that, but the Report painfully illuminates it once again. Tragically, though, that's how decades-long serial abusers get away with it - by somehow getting away with it.
  • There is a lot of well-organized, well-sorted information, much of it extremely helpful in this long process of piecing together the whole truth of the Sandusky saga. Plus there are many other items about the university directly or indirectly related to the scandal, such as recommended procedural improvements. For example, the Report provides missing pieces of information from Sandusky's decision to retire, and how his egregiously misguided retirement arrangement came about. It also provides information about the Clery Act and PSU's neglect of it, background check policies at PSU, the structure of the University Police Department, and other aspects of the university. The suggestions and recommendations of the Freeh Report, while obviously too late to help Sandusky's victims, and while frequently having nothing to do with anything that could have blunted Sandusky, nonetheless will prove valuable to the university.
  • That said, many of the conclusions - the official "Findings" of the Freeh Report - frequently don't follow the facts and evidence. Upon inspection, some of the Findings come across more as educated guesses, opinion, or leaps of logic that simply can't be firmly asserted. It's as if, in some instances, the Report is saying "We've got A, B, C and D as evidence. So we're going to condemn all 26 letters of the alphabet. Those other 22 letters? No, we don't have the evidence on them, but we can reach whatever conclusion we think is right, supporting evidence or no supporting evidence."
  • If Joe Paterno was Bob Smith, he'd be almost a bit player in all of this. Go read the Report - it's clear how much the facts and evidence presented revolve around the actions and doings of Curley, Schultz and president Graham Spanier, with only a little Paterno sprinkled in. Yet inexplicably the Report's Findings lump Paterno under the same umbrella of "Senior Leaders" - a category of employee the Freeh Report created - who were most guilty of enabling Sandusky, of concealing his actions and discounting the welfare of children. Let's be clear: There is no such evidence against Paterno presented in the Freeh Report that actually clearly indicates he played such a role or lied about his knowledge or actions about anything - nothing remotely like the evidence against Schultz -  nor is the relatively vague evidence against Paterno supported or confirmed by anything else unearthed in the eight-months-in-the-making Freeh Report. Thus, the ongoing assault on Paterno is built on an incomplete foundation of evidence. Everything done to destroy his legacy now - the removal of the statue, the vacating of wins - is based on the following: the mentioning of his name in three vague emails, all from Curley and sent to Schultz and/or Spanier, two in 1998 and one in 2001. All of those emails are part of a large thread of emails documented in the Freeh Report. Those three emails are the only ones that mention Paterno in any way in any relation to Sandusky. Taken in a vacuum they might mean something significant. But viewed in the entirety of the email threads and evidence, they are inconclusive. (For example, in one of Curley's emails Curley clearly indicates to Schultz and Spanier that he told Paterno something about Sandusky during 1998, at the same time as the District Attorney investigation in which Sandusky was not charged by the DA. But what Curley might have told Paterno is not clearly indicated, and it's not mentioned again, or explained, or substantiated by anyone or anything else). Nonetheless, the Freeh Report concludes Paterno knew more and was involved more than the evidence shows, and thus did less than he should have re: Sandusky. It's a big stretch of a conclusion considering there is no supporting or clarifying evidence whatsoever And remember, this was an eight-month, FBI-caliber investigation that reviewed 3.5 million emails and documents, in addition to interviewing 430 people. If investigators couldn't find any supporting evidence for something so vague, then you have to consider it, at best, inconclusive evidence. Nonetheless, the Report reached its  flawed conclusions, so then the media reports that Paterno "knew Sandusky's crimes" and "concealed evidence" and "engaged in a cover-up" - the things we hear over and over on TV. Maybe Paterno is as guilty as the Freeh Report and the national media maintain - it's possible, we just don't know - but the fact is there's no proof of it, not if you read the Report objectively. Well then, why hasn't anyone stepped forward and challenged the Findings in the Freeh Report? Because you just don't contradict a mob in the heat of the moment. Right now it all feels a little like the weapons of mass destruction argument did in retrospect for the Iraq War. At this point, Paterno's true known failure was his lack of follow-up with Curley in 2001 and beyond. He needed to make sure Mike McQueary's allegation was being followed through on, completely and appropriately. He didn't. And that's a big deal, a big failing. Yet it's not what he's being condemned for. Because the mob wants more, and apparently the Freeh Report did too.
  • There remains a lot more to this awful story. The Freeh Report is based virtually entirely on hearsay, with most of its key evidence contained in two email threads between Curley, Schultz and Spanier, one from 1998 and one from 2001. The investigators may have reviewed 3.5 million "pieces of pertinent electronic data and documents," and interviewed everyone they could get their hands on. That's great. However they whiffed on virtually all of the key players at the center of, or on the immediate-periphery of, the scandal. And apparently they received little valuable information related to Sandusky and the "senior leaders" from all of the others they spoke with. We know that because the aforementioned emails and documents are the centerpieces of the report, not witness statements. None of the following key players were interviewed and thus provided no direct input for the Report: Curley; Schultz; Paterno (or his representatives); McQueary; Sandusky; any top executives at the Second Mile; PSU's general counsel at the time, Wendell Courtney; or the PSU general counsel in 2010-11, Cynthia Baldwin. Spanier was the lone key player interviewed, at the very end of the investigation, and he offered little. It's hard to consider the Freeh Report something close to a complete statement on the Sandusky scandal when it has no direct input from almost all of the prime individuals, nor any telling witness statements from associates, subordinates, executive assistants, etc. - i.e. no one with a proverbial "smoking gun." Plus, there were all the leaks that compromised the integrity of those compiling the Report.
  • It's apparently exceedingly difficult for people, even really smart and accomplished and seemingly detached people like the Freeh Report investigators, to evaluate this situation objectively and clinically due to the overwhelming, horrifying nature of Sandusky's crimes. And maybe also due to the fear that anything less than a broad condemnation of many individuals by the Report would be viewed as a big waste of $6 million and bring criticism upon the investigators; or would be viewed as being lax on child sexual abuse enablers; or would be viewed as a failure to the victims; or might let someone who is guilty of enabling off the hook, so to speak. This isn't to minimize anyone or anything that helped enable Sandusky to molest more children and evade authorities, but the Freeh Report clearly seems to extend more blame to some who do not reach such a threshold, if you look at the facts and evidence it presents.


It has been a couple of indescribably bad days for Penn State.

First, the Joe Paterno statue needed to come down.

In theory it could go back up someday, if something were to change with regard to Paterno (in the incredibly unlikely event a surge of people ever actually read the Freeh Report and think for themselves, or favorable new information comes out, and a lot of time passes). But the Freeh Report conclusions about Paterno, flawed and premature though they may be, necessitated the removal of the statue, because of all the tension.

The NCAA then crushed the football program with staggering, whopping penalties. A $60 million fine. Twenty fewer total football scholarships each year for four years. A four-year bowl ban. (As if Penn State might reach a decent bowl with 20 fewer scholarship players.)

And, most inexplicably, the vacating of all football wins since 1998. What vacating wins accomplishes, and why since 1998, are questions that cannot reasonably be answered. It's a ridiculous, nonsensical punishment that serves only one purpose: getting Paterno out of the NCAA record book.

Oh, and PSU players can transfer and be immediately eligible. USC, in a faux-magnanimous gesture only Trojans coach Lane Kiffin could produce so quickly, announced that it had contacted PSU about trying to poach star running back Silas Redd.

(NOTE: While allowing players to transfer without having to sit out a season seems fair, the manner in which the NCAA is allowing coaches from other schools to recruit Penn State players on the Penn State campus, with seemingly no restrictions, is a horrendous policy.)

All of this is based on the Freeh Report, a.k.a. the investigation that did not get any information directly from almost all of the key people involved in the scandal.

And it all comes before the criminal trials of Schultz and Curley, slated to get rolling in August, which could conceivably yield exceptional insight and information into this entire tragic saga from the two individuals perhaps closest to its core. The trials could perhaps alter, in any direction, how the NCAA perceives PSU's transgressions and punishment. 

The NCAA conducted no investigation. There was no due process. There were no NCAA rules violated. There was no recognition of or consideration given to PSU's stellar record of no NCAA violations in its history (in any sport), which the NCAA typically takes into account when doling punishment. There apparently was no attempt to let PSU self-impose punishment, another popular NCAA tool.

How the NCAA could do this, step way beyond its boundaries, step outside its jurisdiction and wield a machete to the Lions? Because PSU allowed it, even invited it. The school brass gave the NCAA the green light to pretty much do as it saw fit, and to bypass all protocols and restrictions. The main reason being, why would PSU want to drag this out? Get it over with, take your medicine and move on. (Also, PSU president Rodney Erickson indicated the school had been threatened with up to four years of the death penalty unless it acceded to these penalties.)

Getting this over with as quickly as possible is smart. Though the devastating, extreme sanctions are harsh going down, and the aftertaste could linger forever.

But the bigger question is, why would the NCAA want to rush such a momentous, decisive, punitive, unprecedented action? There is the potential for so much more to come forth from the Schultz and Curley trials in a few weeks. What if that information contradicts some of the Findings from the Freeh Report? What then? 

NCAA president Mark Emmert, who spearheaded this devastating punishment, will have to answer to that, if that time comes. Emmert, the chancellor at LSU not too long ago, a school never cited as a bastion of proper football-academic balance, made some soap-box comments Monday, including:

"If you find yourself in a place where the athletic culture is taking precedence over academic culture then a variety of bad things can occur." As if Sandusky was the byproduct of the Penn State football culture, not the byproduct of a sick, deranged, devious and remorseless mind. As if he never could have existed at, say, LSU. Or anywhere else.

This mindset is simply wrong. There are Sanduskys - child sex abusers - in high school football programs. In middle school softball programs. In AAU basketball programs. In major league baseball clubhouses. And wherever, in and out of sports, there is any sort of a power imbalance and a mentally ill person - which means pretty much anywhere. Emmert is a fool to pigeonhole this as a "football-at-Penn State-got-too-big-and-out-of-control-and-overshadowed-academics-and-created-Sandusky" problem. Even if major college football does have issues related to being so big, popular and incongruent with the mission of universities.

Also, Emmert apparently hasn't checked the national rankings of universities lately, or the incredible academic track record of PSU football, arguably the best in college football under Paterno, right up to his firing. How could Emmert make such a factually incorrect assertion? Perhaps he was too busy empowering himself. One writer called Emmert's actions Monday "a brazen power play and a carefully orchestrated p.r. extravaganza." 

The Big Ten then took away PSU's shared conference bowl revenue, an estimated $13 million total over the next four years, which seemed unnecessarily cruel considering the school just dropped $60 million to the NCAA, but then again the Big Ten needed to get its pound of flesh, too. The league also banned PSU from the conference title game, which should be a formality considering the Nittany Lions will be fielding roughly 76 percent of a football team. 


In recent weeks, a lot of relatively positive news was coming out of Penn State. Donations were doing well. Applications were excellent. Football season tickets were doing well also, all things considered. Football recruiting was excellent. Sandusky met justice. Curley and Schultz would be in court next.

The questionable Freeh Report, the questionable actions of the NCAA - Emmert in particular - and the submissive PSU administration have completely reversed the momentum, for a long time to come.

Everyone is abjectly appalled by child sexual abuse. Everyone is confounded it could have gone on for so long, at PSU and wherever else Sandusky roamed. The NCAA was in a special position to make something much more positive come from it. Being critical and evaluative of what has transpired, while exploring progressive approaches moving forward, the NCAA could have established a unique, out-of-the-box precedent from a most uniquely horrifying situation. (That said, there's no evidence PSU broached any special ideas to the NCAA.) And there was no rush - the NCAA takes years sometimes to investigate schools. 

(This superb column has ideas about how Emmert should have punished PSU: http://www.nypost.com/p/sports/college/football/on_the_grandstand_IrL0pnim5URMCQM0vclpXK)

Instead, the NCAA, in its haste to show how potent and haughty it could be, and unable to summon any creative foresight to make a genuine impact on the plague of abuse in society, simply dropped the biggest bomb it could justify on the entire situation. They rejected the idea of using this platform to pursue fresh options to enact real change, to exhibit true leadership. Instead they didn't merely punish PSU, they decimated the school.

The justice system has been taking care of the guilty. The NCAA blasted the innocent.

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