Multiple sports law experts don’t expect the NCAA to levy severe punishments on Penn State based on the findings of the Freeh report, announced Thursday.
David Ridpath, former Marshall University assistant athletic director for compliance and student services, said he read the 267-page report detailing Penn State’s involvement in covering up the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal after it was released. He said the report hasn’t changed his opinion of how the NCAA might handle Penn State.
“I don’t think the NCAA will do anything based upon its current bylaws,” said Ridpath, an assistant professor of sports management at Ohio University. “We often joke in the business the NCAA can make a violation of a ham sandwich. If the NCAA truly wanted to do something to Penn State because of Sandusky, they can somehow justify it. But it wouldn’t be smart for them to do that.”
Ridpath said sanctioning Penn State would force the NCAA to get involved in other criminal cases such as the one surrounding the University of Montana football program. Montana, a Football Championship Subdivision power, is dealing with a scandal involving its handling of sexual assault claims against multiple players. Football coach Robin Pflugrad and athletic director Jim O’Day’s contracts were not renewed because of the scandal.
“If the NCAA gets involved in Penn State, how does it not get involved in Montana?” Ridpath said.
Michael Buckner, a lawyer in Pompano Beach, Fla., whose firm specializes in college sports law and NCAA infractions, called the Penn State case “unprecedented.”
Buckner said Penn State’s handling of the Sandusky scandal doesn’t document a lack of institutional control, as defined by the NCAA manual.
The actions of multiple department employees, including athletic director Tim Curley and former football coach Joe Paterno, were criticized in the Freeh report.
“It’s not an NCAA rules violation no matter how egregious and disgusting that behavior is and the university’s reaction to everything is,” Buckner said. “The NCAA has no rules for it.”
Buckner said the NCAA is reluctant to meddle with ongoing criminal investigations. Sandusky was convicted on 45 counts of child sex abuse. Curley and former vice president for finance Gary Schultz are facing charges on failure to report abuse and perjury connected with a grand jury probe of a 2001 incident.
Curley is still listed as athletic director on Penn State’s website. Former Penn State football player and wrestler Dave Joyner has served as acting athletic director since November.
Joyner said he read the Freeh report for the first time Thursday.
“The report concludes that individuals entrusted to positions of authority shunned the basic responsibility to protect children, and innocent children suffered as a result,” Joyner said in a statement. “Moving forward, we must do everything within our capacity to restore trust in Penn State, and the Athletic Department will play a central and leading role in that process.”
The Freeh report offers guidelines for the future structuring of the athletic department, which operates under a separate budget from the general university. The report said the athletic department was perceived by many in the Penn State community as an “island” where staff members lived by their own rules.
Revising the athletic department’s reporting structure, conducting national searches for key positions and increasing the compliance department’s resources are among the Freeh report’s recommendations. Ridpath said hiring an athletic director in Curley who once played for Paterno created problems within the department.
“It’s uncomfortable anytime the football coach has an AD who used to play for him,” Ridpath said. “Schools should fear that situation because it shows who’s really in charge
“Knowing people in the Penn State athletic department — and I have nothing against the people there — if I could describe it in one word I would describe it as insular. I have seen some insular athletic departments, but not many as insular as the Penn State athletic department.”
The NCAA also examined the Freeh report for the first time Thursday and released a statement saying president Mark Emmert’s stance hasn’t changed since a letter he sent to Penn State president Rodney Erickson last Nov. 17.
The letter outlines four questions the university must answer regarding its handling of the scandal:
Former NCAA enforcement officer Mark Jones expects the organization to read the Freeh report as part of its investigation.
“If I were in their shoes, I certainly would look at it,” said Jones, a collegiate sports attorney for Ice Miller LLP in Indianapolis.
Asked how long the NCAA’s investigation might take, Jones said, “I wouldn’t anticipate it taking years.”
“It’s hard to know at this juncture,” he added. “There’s so much information through the Freeh report. I’m sure they will do some interviews on their own when it’s necessary. It would be somewhat finite with how long it takes them to get their arms around it and determine the scope of the investigation.”
Guy Cipriano can be reached at 231-4643. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy