The Real Story Behind Our Attempt To Get the NCAA President to Answer Questions About Penn State Sanctions

About a week ago I learned via a tweet from a supporter that NCAA President Mark Emmert was coming to Los Angeles to speak to the Chamber of Commerce. After contacting the group I was informed that the event was open to the public (for those who bought tickets) and that Emmert would be answering questions. I was also told via email that camera phones were allowed to record the event and that there would be a press conference afterwards.

I quickly decided that, since I live just outside of Los Angeles, that this would present a unique opportunity to finally get Emmert to try an explain his organization’s completely irrational sanctions against Penn State. However, exactly how to go about getting this done was a far more complex matter.

Unfortunately, one of my many weaknesses is that I am an extremely straight forward and honest person who gives people the benefit of the doubt until they prove they don’t deserve it. With that in mind, I decided to be very clear with the organizers about what I intended to do.

I told them that I wanted to ask Emmert a question, I wanted to record it, and I wanted to attend any press conference that he had afterwards. It was immediately very obvious that I made a mistake in being so upfront about my intentions because the Chamber clearly decided to alert the NCAA about what I was planning on doing. Suddenly I was being told that the press conference (which, as far as I can tell, never ended up happening) was off limits to me and that large cameras were not allowed at the event.

Realizing that being straight forward was not going to work here, I decided to go into full “covert action” mode (though I realized that, with element of surprise gone, the chances of ultimate success were greatly diminished). I hired a photographer with whom I had done “covert’ actions in the past and got in touch with two local Penn State alums I know who were willing to try and record the Q and A on the “down low” with small cameras. My plan was to ask Emmert a question myself and then, assuming he didn’t really answer it, try and get him again his way out the door.

But then I decided I should at least let Franco Harris know about what was happening because I figured there was a decent chance he would want to have the opportunity to speak to Emmert. He had already gone to incredible lengths just to leave some documents with the leaders of two local universities who were on the NCAA infractions committee and he had never even gotten the chance to meet with them. I figured that he had more than earned his right to get the first crack at Emmert. 

Now, my guess is that if you asked every member of the NFL Hall of Fame, “Hey, do you want to fly across the country at the last minute, at your own expense, for the chance you might be able to ask one question in front a of crowd who will likely think you are insane for taking your position on the issue?” that there is only one of them who would say “sure, let me check some flights and get back to you.” However, that “one” just happened to be Franco Harris.

So I wasn’t totally shocked when Franco let me know the day before the event that he was indeed going fly in (with an out of the way stop in Charlotte), get a hotel room, and come to the Emmert speaking engagement.

This of course significantly altered my plan of attack. I have been known (for better or worse) for being completely unafraid to aggressively confront high profile people, even to the point where my own self interest is harmed. I do this because I strongly believe in holding people accountable for their actions, especially when the media will not.

While this tactic has often not been good for my career, it has actually been rather effective at times. For instance, you can make a very strong argument that O.J. Simpson is in jail today as a direct result of a confrontation I had with him at a Los Angeles autograph signing, and I don’t think it is a coincidence that Mark Schwartz hasn’t been near Penn State since I went after him after the Ohio game.

However, with Franco now involved, I was no longer likely to get to ask a question at all during the formal Q and A and I was certainly not going to do anything which might reflect badly on Franco. I am an extremely loyal person and he has been extraordinary to this cause during this entire saga.

So the new plan was for the four of us to try and record Franco asking Emmert his question and then maybe try and get Emmert ourselves after the formal Q and A was over. In a sense, it felt like we were planning a mob hit only with tiny cameras instead of guns and without much element of surprise.

The NCAA was obviously on high alert for us as before Franco even got to ask his question. Two of our four cameras were essentially “taken out” by their administrators who were on a hawk-like look out for any sort of recording (even though there had to be dozens of other people in attendance with their phones out). This left me with the last “shot” but “armed” with only a Blackberry, I was not optimistic about how it would turn out technically.

Undeterred, when Emmert actually called on Franco (Franco’s presence had been noted during the introductions and Emmert alluded to him directly a couple of times in his remarks) I started to record the happenings on my phone. Almost immediately I was told by someone (I believe from the NCAA) to turn it off. Having been sent an email that camera phones were okay and knowing that my camera was basically the last chance we had to record what Franco had come all the way across to country to do, I refused to turn off my phone. I was told that I had to do so or the police would be called. I chuckled and told them to go ahead and call the police.

As luck would have it (I have found that in most cases I don’t have much and certainly don’t possess Franco’s “Immaculate Reception” kind of luck), soon after I was told they would be calling the police to crack down on my rouge Blackberry, it somehow, even though I had cleared extra room on it that morning, ran out of memory space to keep recording.

As for the actual question and response, Franco simply wanted to know why it seems as if Jerry Sandusky got more due process here than Joe Paterno and Tim Curley did. To say that Emmert dodged the question would simply be an insult to the art of question dodging.

Remarkably, Emmert claimed that he was barely part of the decision regarding sanctions for Penn State. Even more amazingly, he said that Joe Paterno was not found guilty, or was even mentioned, in the ruling by the NCAA (despite the clear fact that he is directly cited by the NCAA in their decree). Instead, he bizarrely maintained that that is was Penn State as a school which had its wins taken away.

However, he never came close to addressing the specifics implied in Franco’s question dealing with the “logic” of punishing Penn State or Paterno starting in 1998 after a law enforcement investigation, which Paterno may have had extremely limited knowledge of, had effectively exonerated Jerry Sandusky.

When Franco tried to follow up Emmert’s complete non answer, the NCAA President used a phrase which stunned Franco, saying, “We will just have to agree to disagree.” This was shocking to the former Penn State running back because it mirrored exactly a line he has heard time and again from the Penn State Board of Trustees. It is a phrase that is particularly disturbing because it is the kind of thing that you say in a minor dispute about, say, which team will win a game on Sunday, not something as incredibly substantial as this situation.

Perhaps the most telling moment in Emmert’s desperate attempt to not come close to answering Franco’s simple inquiry was when the NCAA President inadvertently revealed that he was under the colossally absurd impression that Franco Harris, who was a huge part of the most famous PRO team of the 1970s, may have played for PENN STATE in 1998! To be clear, this was NOT a joke (and Franco did correct him). One commentator on Facebook hilariously called Emmert’s flub the “Immaculate Misconception.”

Now, while such a massive lack of even a basic understanding of football history doesn’t prove that Emmert simply lacks the grasp of basic facts necessary to make such a huge decision in such a complicated case as the one involving Penn State, it certainly at least makes one take a long pause to question his credibility. How would you feel if the judge in your criminal case mistakenly thought that Earl Warren had only recently left the Supreme Court?

After the Q and A was over, Franco then wanted to go up to Emmert himself and speak to him directly. Here is where Franco’s own good nature made things more difficult. As he slowly made his way towards the man he had traveled over 3,000 miles to see, he must have graciously stopped to take at LEAST a dozen pictures with the other people who were there. By the time he finally got to Emmert, the NCAA President was clearly ready to do the “not sure where I have to go, but I know I have to go” dance.

I followed Franco towards Emmert and tired to video what was happening on my handheld home camera but two NCAA officials immediately physically blocked both my path and the camera lens. They told me that I was not allowed to record anything. Unfortunately, trying hard not to embarrass Franco, I obeyed their wishes and missed getting video of Emmert running away from Franco and me and slithering out a side door while Franco was still very politely trying to nail him down on getting to speak to the NCAA infractions committee.

A few minutes after that, the police finally showed up, but there was nothing for them to see and they seemed rather embarrassed to be there, especially when they realized that an NFL Hall of Famer was involved (knowing this would be the reaction was part of why I had no fear of the police showing up). The police literally never even spoke to me and Franco and I had a big laugh about the whole thing after we left the building and did an interview about what really happened.

The most bizarre part of this whole situation was the media reaction to it. I tweeted a snippet about the event and mentioned that the police were called. Numerous media members immediately focused on those couple of words and created an imaginary reality which was as juicy as possible (interestingly, not one even thought to raise the free speech/press issues involved in the police being called to stop a phone from recording). Because they wanted a certain narrative to be the reality, in their minds Franco and I were chasing Mark Emmert out the door with a machete.

Now I can certainly take some responsibility for allowing this gross misperception to be created, but I have zero accountability for what the media did with it. Yahoo Sports actually took my tweet and wrote an entire article based on what MIGHT have happened based on my 140 character posting without even bothering to even try to get a hold me! Memo to Yahoo: it is never a good sign when the word “apparently” appears in your headline.

If that wasn’t bad enough, then the Patriot News (the paper which broke the Sandusky story) took the Yahoo article and used it as the lone source for their own article, also without even trying to speak to me. Then, on Thursday, USA Today did basically the exact same thing! Amazingly, once we were able to release the actual audio of the encounter, they completely ignored the story. I guess the facts had gotten in the way for their good story.

Frankly, there are startling parallels between this whole situation and how the Sandusky story itself got misreported. Regardless, even I was shocked by how incompetent the reporting on this was.

But through all of it, my biggest take away from the day (other than what an incredible man Franco Harris is, which is something I already knew) was just how little faith anyone should have in the amount of knowledge Mark Emmert actually has about this case and the remarkable lack of confidence he has in his position on Penn State.

Not once did Emmert remotely refer to any facts from the case to back up his assertions and he made at least two statements that were absolutely comically false (Paterno not being found guilty or mentioned in the sanctions, and being off 26 years regarding when Franco played at Penn State). After watching him literally run away out the back door (as his minions blocked my recording and called the police on me) I became convinced that this was a man who knows that he screwed up and is clearly afraid to talk about the details.

Here’s how I think of it. If I had just ordered the worst sanctions in NCAA history and I was confident that I had done the right thing I would never even think about restricting questions I got on the subject. I would want people to fully understand why I did it and I would cite chapter and verse at every opportunity the unfortunate facts which caused me to come to my tragic conclusions.

Instead, we get exactly the opposite in nearly every way. In this case, as is often the truth in life, I think we can learn at least as much from what is not said as what is. I left the event more certain than ever that Mark Emmert had absolutely no idea what he was basing those sanctions on (which is why they ridiculously begin in 1998) and was simply riding the tidal wave the news media had created for him.

After this rather interesting day, the war for the truth continues. Today we didn’t win a major battle, but perhaps more importantly we proved for sure just how incredibly weak the enemy really is.