RALPH D. RUSSO and TOM COYNE
Now the NCAA gets its say on Penn State.
College sports' governing body was expected to deal a series of heavy blows to the Nittany Lions football program on Monday, less than two weeks after a devastating report accused coach Joe Paterno and other top university officials of concealing child sex abuse allegations against a retired assistant coach for years to avoid bad publicity. A news conference was scheduled for 9 a.m. in Indianapolis.
A multi-year bowl ban, lost scholarships, recruiting limits, probation and a multimillion-dollar fine all seem likely for the program Paterno built into a national power under the slogan of "success with honor." And the NCAA, heavily criticized for its sometimes-ponderous pace in deciding penalties as scandals mounted at Ohio State, Auburn, USC and elsewhere, acted with unprecedented swiftness in arriving at what it called "corrective and punitive" sanctions for a team that is trying to start over with a new coach and a new outlook.
The NCAA announced no details Sunday in serving notice that it would indeed weigh in on perhaps the worst scandal in American college sports history. President Mark Emmert cautioned last week that he had not ruled out the possibility of shutting down the football program altogether — the so-called death penalty, famously used against Southern Methodist a quarter-century ago — saying he had "never seen anything as egregious" as the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
The NCAA announcement Sunday came shortly after Penn State took down its famed statue of Paterno, six months to the day since his death from lung cancer. The university said leaving it up would be a "recurring wound" for Sandusky's victims. An accomplished defensive coordinator, Sandusky was convicted of molesting young boys over more than a decade.
A harsh penalty from the NCAA could have repercussions well beyond Penn State's football program, which generates large profits — more than $50 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education — that subsidize dozens of other sports at the school. The potential for a historic NCAA penalty also is worrisome for a region where the economy is built at least partially on the strength and popularity of the football program.
Kayla Weaver, a Penn State senior and member of the dance team called the Lionettes, said an NCAA death penalty would not only make football players transfer, but it also would force program changes for cheerleaders, dancers and band members, and would hurt season-ticket holders.
"It could ruin everything that we've built here," said Weaver, from Franklin Lakes, N.J.
Added Derek Leonard, a 31-year-old university construction project coordinator who grew up in the area: "It's going to kill our town."
Emmert put the Penn State matter on the fast track. Other cases that were strictly about violating the NCAA rulebook have dragged on for months and even years. There was no sign that the infractions committee so familiar to college sports fans was involved this time around as Emmert moved quickly, no doubt aided by the July 12 release of the report by former FBI director Louis Freeh and what it said about Paterno and the rest of the Penn State leadership.
The investigation focused partly on university officials' decision not to go to child-welfare authorities in 2001 after a coaching assistant told Paterno that he had seen Sandusky sexually abusing a boy in the locker room showers. Penn State officials already knew about a previous allegation against Sandusky by that time, from 1998.
The leaders, the report said, "repeatedly concealed critical facts relating to Sandusky's child abuse from authorities, the university's board of trustees, the Penn State community and the public at large."
Sandusky is awaiting sentencing after being convicted last month of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years.
Emmert had warned Penn State last fall that the NCAA would be examining the "exercise of institutional control" within the athletic department, and said it was clear that "deceitful and dishonest behavior" could be considered a violation of ethics rules. So, too, could a failure to exhibit moral values or adhere to ethics guidelines.
The Freeh report also said school had "decentralized and uneven" oversight of compliance issues — laws, regulations, policies and procedures — as required by the NCAA.
Recent major scandals, such as improper payments to the family of Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush while he was at Southern California, and players at Ohio State trading memorabilia for cash and tattoos, have resulted in bowl bans and the loss of scholarships.
Current NCAA rules limit the so-called "death penalty" to colleges already on probation that commit another major violation. That was the case when SMU had its program suspended in the mid-80s, the last time the punishment was imposed on a major college football program.
NCAA leaders have indicated in recent months they are willing to return to harsher penalties for the worst offenses.
"This is completely different than an impermissible benefits scandal like (what) happened at SMU, or anything else we've dealt with. This is as systemic a cultural problem as it is a football problem. There have been people that said this wasn't a football scandal," Emmert told PBS recently. "It was that but much more. And we'll have to figure out exactly what the right penalties are. I don't know that past precedent makes particularly good sense in this case because it's really an unprecedented problem."
Another question was whether Penn State — and, by extension, Paterno, major college football's winningest coach — would have any of his victories thrown out. Paterno won 409 games for the school in his 46 seasons as head coach.
As Penn State awaited its fate, construction workers removed the larger-than-life monument of its Hall of Fame coach. The Paterno family released a statement criticizing Penn State's decision to remove the statue, saying it was made in haste and before all the facts about Paterno's role in the Sandusky scandal were known.
The bronze statue, weighing more than 900 pounds, was erected in 2001 in honor of Paterno's record-setting 324th Division I coaching victory and his "contributions to the university." Penn State President Rodney Erickson said he decided the sculpture had to come down because it "has become a source of division and an obstacle to healing."