"The Betrayal of Joe Paterno" Chapter Eight: The NCAA


When the Freeh Report hit, the Paterno forces and their supporters were much like a battered and demoralized army who had already endured what they thought was the worst battle they could ever possibly face, only to be then hit with a nuclear bomb they didn’t even know existed. As unprepared as they were for the initial onslaught, they were even less ready for the second wave of devastating attacks.

The Paternos themselves were obviously in both shock and mourning. The only person who could authoritatively defend against the accusations of a cover-up to protect Sandusky was dead. Anything the family said now was going to be instantly discredited by the media or even seen as somehow disrespectful to the victims. The Paterno response was understandably weak and confused. Meanwhile, everyone else allegedly involved was either under indictment or too afraid of that possibility to speak freely.

As little “cover” as had existed previously for publicly backing Paterno before the Freeh Report, now there was literally none. Almost all of those who had been previously supportive now ran for the hills knowing that defending a disgraced dead man could in no way be worth the personal risk, and that the media would have a free shot at them from point blank range.

Phil Knight supposedly caved before he could have possibly even read the report (I am told by Scott Paterno, and his later re-reversal seems to substantiate it, that Knight himself was forced to wash his hands of Paterno because of Nike shareholders and not his own beliefs). Nike immediately took Paterno’s name off of a child center.

Duke basketball coach Mike Kryzewski, who had been publicly critical of how Penn State had treated Paterno, also quickly retreated after the release of the Freeh Report. (As yet another part of the “Perfect Storm,” the Summer Olympics being two weeks away most certainly heightened the need for Nike and the USA men’s basketball coach to avoid any possible Paterno-related controversy. Remarkably, Bob Costas, one of the very few members of the media with the power to possibly have risked being a contrarian, would later admit that his preparation for the Olympics curtailed his ability to fully examine the report and may have led him to falsely buy into its highly suspect conclusions.)

To continue the war analogy, “Paternoville,” its walls now crumbled and its army decimated, was now utterly defenseless and its remaining citizens were panicked and scurrying for any possible refuge. What was left of the formerly regal Paterno kingdom was now ripe for an easy invasion.

Symbolically, the removal of Paterno’s statue could not have been a more powerful metaphor for this reality and the media immediately focused on that monument as the natural next step in the process of dismantling his legacy. Once again, they had a simple and dramatic storyline that seemed to have a natural climax, all perfectly timed to keep them amused during the summer lull before the Olympics began. 

With the media wind almost literally blowing at its back, an airplane was hired (the media was for some reason not interested in finding out who in the world decides to spend the money to do such a thing) to carry a banner over campus for multiple days with what was essentially a terroristic threat against the statue. Normally, such tactics would be ignored or condemned by the media because they create a very dangerous precedent, but in this case all the normal rules were forgotten and whoever hired the plane got exactly the result they wanted (the double standard between how the media portrayed the student “riot” and this anonymous terror threat was particularly galling).

This act of airborne intimidation worked perfectly. It allowed the authorities at Penn State to claim that by taking the statue down they were actually acting on behalf of public safety and even somehow protecting the statue itself. With the vast majority of chastened students either off for summer vacation or completely dispirited, any resistance was symbolic at best (by now the Penn State student media, having seen the handwriting on the wall and knowing which perspective they needed to take if they were going to use any of their work on the biggest story they would ever cover to find a job, were now nearly as anti-Paterno as the mainstream media).

I have spoken extensively with student Kevin Berkon who, as the “Last of the Mohicans,” guarded the statue hour by hour for its final days in an emotionally grueling ordeal. It was obvious that the entire nightmare took a lot out of him, but far more so psychologically than physically. It felt to me as his youth and innocence were stolen when the statue of Paterno, with a blue blanket draped over its head like it was being led to a hanging, was finally taken away to an undisclosed location, probably to never be seen in public again.

Paterno himself was dead and buried, so Penn State had done the next closest thing to offering the Gods of the NCAA and the media a human sacrifice. In a last ditch effort to quench their thirst for vengeance, they offered up his statue.

The NCAA, normally so weak that it couldn’t take over a kid’s lemonade stand, suddenly was taking advantage of an opportunity to simultaneously flex its puny muscles and finally do something that the media would cheer as being on the morally right side of an issue. And like Mayberry’s Barney Fife being handed a big arrest because the criminal’s family decided to turn him in with no questions asked, the NCAA could barely contain its excitement when presented the chance to pretend that it still had real power.

Of the many incredibly insane facts surrounding this entire “rush to injustice,” one of the most astonishing is that the NCAA not only determined that it could rely on the Freeh Report to do an investigation of Penn State (something one of Freeh’s own assistants said was never intended to happen), but that they then decided to unleash their punishment less than two weeks after the ink had dried on their printed copy, assuming they bothered to print it out or even read the report. To put this in context, the NCAA investigation of USC because of gifts that Reggie Bush got from a prospective agent (a far less complex matter than the Sandusky situation) took at least four years before penalties were levied.

That statistic bears repeating. The NCAA spent four more years looking into a simple case of improper benefits for a star player than it did examining whether its all-time winningest football coach took part in the cover-up of an incredibly complex series of crimes by a former assistant coach who hadn’t been at the school for over a decade.

Of course, as absurd as that fact is, the notion that the NCAA had any business dabbling in this matter to begin with was even more ridiculous.

First of all, the Sandusky affair was clearly a criminal issue. Under the worst interpretation of events, it had absolutely nothing to do with gaining a competitive advantage on the field. Even NCAA President Mark Emmert publicly indicated when the case first broke that he didn’t think the NCAA was likely to get involved in such a situation (of course he said that before it was clear that the media would so strongly cheerlead for such an action and that Penn State’s administration would fund the investigation and practically beg for strong punishment). The NCAA never even stated which specific rule Penn State had allegedly broken.

Secondly, the nature of the punishments was completely nonsensical and absurd. In its infinite wisdom, the NCAA decided to harm the current students, who were as young as seven when Sandusky last coached, the most by taking away football scholarships and likely crippling the program for years to come. They fined the school $60 million of money which would effectively come from unwitting supporters of the university. They even stripped Paterno of his all-time wins record by bizarrely taking away every team accomplishment since 1998.

This last provision is critical to understanding how incredibly unjust and ill-considered the NCAA sanctions really were. Forgetting for a moment the utter silliness of trying to pretend that an eraser is capable of magically declaring that history never really happened, the removal of all Penn State wins starting in 1998 is the smoking gun that this entire decision was very wrong.

The ‘logic” here seemed to be that because there was an allegation against Sandusky in 1998, which a couple of people at Penn State knew at least something about, that this was when the NCAA’s magic eraser should start to do its thing. Here are just some of the reasons that concept is simply ludicrous:

  • Numerous law enforcement agencies looked into that event and declared it “unfounded.”
  • No charges were ever filed at that time.There is no hard evidence that Joe Paterno knew any of the details of the 1998 investigation.
  • Louis Freeh himself concluded that Paterno starting the process of Sandusky’s retirement had nothing to do with the 1998 event.
  • The sanction presumes that Joe Paterno would have had to take some sort of action against Sandusky to avoid being punished. Since he couldn’t charge him with anything, what exactly was he supposed to have done? Fire a man because he wasn’t even charged with a crime in an episode where there is no evidence Paterno even knew what was alleged? Seriously?!
  • The victim in 1998 maintained, with his mother’s approval, a very close and completely non abusive relationship for the next 13 years after that. As part of that friendship, Sandusky took him to numerous Penn State games. The NCAA had effectively declared, allegedly in the name of justice for this victim, that every win Victim 6 witnessed never really happened. Nice job NCAA.
  • Rodney Erickson, who as the new president of Penn State signed the NCAA consent decree, was the person who technically approved Sandusky’s retirement package which, presumably according to the NCAA, was part of the cover-up for which Penn State was being sanctioned. Either Erickson was part of the cover-up, or he knew damn right well that there wasn’t one. Based on the NCAA’s “logic,” why wasn’t Erickson forced to resign?

This last detail about Erickson (which definitely belongs on the rather long list of “you can’t make this stuff up” facts in this saga), is far more than just a nifty rhetorical device to illustrate the insanity of the NCAA sanctions. If there is a true “conspiracy” anywhere in this story, it may very well be between Rodney Erickson and the NCAA.

Here are the data points which seem to indicate that, at the very least, Erickson was not at all unhappy with the results of the brutal NCAA sanctions:

Erickson made public comments (which he said were misinterpreted) beforehand indicating a desire to deemphasize football, which dovetails almost exactly which what the NCAA did for him.

No one from Penn State (including the board which had an incentive to justify its original actions) made even the slightest effort to defend the school publicly in any way.

Erickson signed the consent decree as quickly as possible after the release of the Freeh Report, without getting the full board’s approval, and in a way which prevented any possibility of appeal.

As president, Erickson quickly instituted the “move on” initiative, which included the removal of the Paterno statue as well as any significant indication that he, or the incredible accomplishments of many of his players, ever even existed.


Erickson claimed that he accepted the draconian sanctions because the alternative was the “Death Penalty,” which would likely terminate the program for at least four years. However, others at the NCAA say that possibility was never on the table and, frankly, the “Death Penalty” would have been the best thing Penn State could have hoped for because they could have immediately appealed and bought time for the Freeh Report to be dismantled.

Importantly, it also would have been completely logistically impossible for the Big 10 conference and Penn State’s opponents to redo the entire football schedule without Penn State in less than two months. The prospect of twelve other schools losing millions of dollars in irreparable harm would have insured that any judge would have had the political cover to instantly issue an injunction keeping the sanctions from taking effect before a court could determine their validity.

As previously mentioned, Erickson had literally signed off on (though I am told he was almost certainly not intimately involved in the decision-making) Sandusky’s 1999 retirement package, so he may have been personally compromised by fear of being wrongly implicated in the cover-up if he dared to fight the NCAA. Regardless, since he was at the epicenter of events when it all went down, he should have known that the allegations of a cover-up were absurd and therefore that should have prevented him from giving in to any blackmail threat, no matter how transparent and feckless the bluff (There is no doubt in my mind that the NCAA was in fact bluffing and not even very convincingly. The Baylor basketball and Jerry Tarkanian cases would have destroyed them in court had they tried to institute such a dubious penalty under these set of circumstances, and I think they were well aware of that.)

When I tried to confront Erickson at a Penn State event in Los Angeles (he came up to me having no idea about my connection to the case) and I asked why he signed the consent decree, he gave both me and the two other people listening to the conversation the strong impression that he felt as if he had no free will in the decision saying, “You presume that I had a choice in the matter.” While he may have simply been referring to the false threat of the “Death Penalty,” looking in his eyes (before he quickly walked away saying, “I don’t want to discuss this any more”), I honestly felt as if he meant that he really did not have a choice in the matter. If this is true, there is either something else nefarious going on here, or Erickson is clearly the worst poker player in the history of Pennsylvania.

The utter absurdity of the NCAA sanctions was best illustrated by the fact that even most of the news media thought that they were at least somewhat wrong. It was almost as if the NCAA, the “geeks” of the metaphorical adult high school had gone too far in trying to ingratiate themselves to the “cool kids” in the media and actually turned many of them off.

But for me the moment when I realized that the sanctions were not only immoral, but also not based on any sort of reality or logic was when I went with Franco Harris to see NCAA president Mark Emmert speak in Los Angeles several months before Erickson came here.

At my suggestion, Franco came across the country on a last-second whim just for the chance to ask Emmert one question about the sanctions. I was there, along with some supporters, to try and record the event. The NCAA security team went to extraordinary lengths to prevent us from videotaping what transpired, but because we had hooked Harris up beforehand with his own microphone, we were able to get audio of the remarkable exchange.

Like a lot of people, there had always been a little part of me which wondered/feared that maybe those making the punishment decisions in all of this knew more than what was in the public domain and that this was why their actions seemingly made such little sense. That apprehension was washed away after I heard Emmert’s shockingly weak response to Franco’s question (which was, basically, “Why did you punish Joe Paterno for two episodes where Jerry Sandusky was effectively found ‘not guilty’ by others?”).

I have a very dim view of major public figures/celebrities in general. In my experience they are unimpressive people who usually don’t have nearly the clue about the facts of their own situation that most people would expect (Emmert and Erickson both clearly fit this description). Even with these rather low expectations, I was still stunned by just how oblivious to the facts the president of the NCAA was with regard to the most dramatic sanctions the organization had ever handed down.

It was obvious that Emmert had not thoroughly read the Freeh Report on which his ruling was allegedly based (it is frightening to imagine just how little of it the college presidents on the NCAA committee which approved the sanctions likely read) and didn’t even seem to understand the basic facts of his own consent decree.

Emmert actually tired to claim to Harris that it was “not true” that Joe Paterno had been punished by the NCAA, or had his all-time win record taken away. He even went so far as to claim that Paterno isn’t mentioned in the decree. When I first heard that I thought that perhaps he was simply making a bogus assertion that might somehow be technically accurate.

However, the consent decree itself is very clear. Not only is Paterno specifically named in the section discussing the insane vacating of all Penn State football wins since 1998, it also explicitly states that his personal win total will be adjusted to reflect that reality. As for the year of 1998 (Emmert got so confused that at one point he bizarrely asked Franco if he was on one of the teams whose wins got taken away, even though Harris had graduated 25 years earlier), I am convinced that Emmert, like many members of the media, is under the impression that the nature of the “unfounded” allegation against Sandusky in 1998 was much more dramatic than it actually was (thus, the price being paid for no one publicly “defending” Sandusky and allowing his crimes to be misperceived to the detriment of justice for others).

It certainly appears rather obvious that Emmert and the NCAA just simply blindly accepted whatever Freeh said without even looking at the details or giving the issue any actual thought. After all, why did they need to bother? The media was universally telling them it was all true and Penn State itself was making it very clear that they weren’t going to put up any fight at all (it was very revealing to see how Penn State vociferously defended itself against rather minor allegations involving player safety made recently by Sports Illustrated in comparison to how they laid down on the far more damaging accusations that the school actively protected a pedophile).

The ridiculously quick timing of it all alone tells me that the entire sanction issue was nothing more than a rubber stamp situation for Emmert, maybe even tacitly “proposed” by Erickson himself (why else would Emmert possibly be so disconnected from the facts that he could tell Franco Harris that Joe Paterno wasn’t even mentioned in the decree, and yet still be so delusionally confident that he was in the right?).

Meanwhile, the Penn State Board of Trustees got the vindication it wanted as well. They had created this fiasco to begin with by panicking and firing Paterno and Spanier, therefore causing the “Sandusky Scandal” to be forever branded a “Penn State Scandal.” Now, the impression was being created that they had actually acted properly and they weren’t even forced to take a vote accepting the NCAA sanctions.

Of all the dastardly deeds of those on the board during all of this, one special act of spinelessness deserves extra mention. Paul Silvis, founder and chief executive of Restek Corp and a member of the board which fired Paterno, sent out a form email after the sanctions were handed down to those who had written to him asking him to fight back. Silvis, in a stunningly gesture of utter gutlessness, actually told concerned Penn Staters that he was sure that there had not been any active cover-up of Sandusky’s crimes by their university… but that it was time to “move on” and make the best of bad situation.

Even the French military leadership during World War II would have looked at that email and (after they said, “What is an email?”) would have been embarrassed by the overt cowardice.

Before the sanctions were handed down, this story was situation where a false media narrative had destroyed Paterno’s reputation probably unfairly and certainly prematurely, but in a way in which the stain could have eventually been lifted. After the statue removal and accompanying sanctions, it was forever elevated into the realm of permanent history, etched in stone, which would almost take an act of God to make right.

Of the hundreds of utterly insane facts in this story which could qualify as the most bizarre, there seems little doubt to me that one stands above all others. The reality that for many months, until it was recently dismissed for a lack of legal standing, the only legitimate chance there was to overturn the clearly unjust NCAA sanctions was from a lawsuit brought by Governor Corbett. Yes, the very same Corbett whose AG’s office is currently alleging the identical cover-up theory on which the sanctions are based, who originally publicly supported them, and who may be the primary reason it all went down the way that it did against Paterno and Penn State.

That truth is simply stupefying, and yet, is also somehow consistent with the general madness of this continually shocking saga.