Penn State Football

Penn State football: Lettermen embrace Paterno Report

When it was released last summer, Todd Blackledge took his time combing through the 267-page Freeh report that alleged top Penn State officials and Joe Paterno knowingly concealed information relating to the child sexual abuse crimes of Jerry Sandusky.

Now Blackledge, a former Penn State quarterback and current college football analyst for ESPN, has another document to read cover-to-cover. Sunday’s release of the Paterno report, a document that uses analysis from experts to refute the main findings of former FBI director Louis Freeh’s investigation, was met with optimism and openly embraced by Penn State football lettermen.

“I’m just glad that some very serious questions are being raised about concerns with the potential flaws or mistakes in the Freeh report that I felt when I read that,” Blackledge said.

Former Penn State players have taken issue with Freeh’s main findings. In his report, Freeh presented a case that Paterno knowingly helped former Penn State president Graham Spanier, vice president Gary Shultz and athletic director Tim Curley conceal Sandusky’s crimes to avoid bad publicity for the university and football program. The Penn State board of trustees paid $6.5 million for the report.

It was a narrative rejected by those who knew Paterno closely.

“What came out (Sunday) is what most of us really believe, that there wasn’t any kind of collusion,” former Penn State quarterback Chuck Burkhart said.

Blackledge found himself in a difficult position as the scandal unfolded. As a former Penn State player and on-air commentator for ESPN, he had his own personal past with the Paterno family to draw upon. But the findings presented by the Freeh report caused a backlash so quick and so severe, defenders of Paterno risked being taken out of context.

“It was very difficult to even think about saying anything that was contrary to the mainstream narrative that was going on,” Blackledge said. “Being in the media and seeing how the story was being represented and told and at the same time having personal feelings for Coach Paterno, for Penn State and things that I believed about him and our program that were being assailed, that’s not an easy place to be.”

Paterno passed away in January 2012, before the release of the Freeh report, but his reputation continued to take hits posthumously.

A day after the Freeh report was released, Paterno’s name was removed from a building on the campus of his alma mater, Brown University. It was taken off Nike’s child development center. Paterno’s statue at Beaver Stadium was removed. Earlier, his name was removed from the trophy awarded to the Big Ten Championship Game winners.

Eleven days after its release, the NCAA used the Freeh report rather than rely on its own investigation to cripple the Penn State football program with a four-year bowl ban and a loss of scholarships. Meanwhile, the NCAA allowed players to transfer to other schools where they are eligible to play immediately. Penn State players are still free to transfer without having to sit out any time. Penn State also was fined $60 million by the NCAA.

“I’m so happy that (the Paterno report) was done because I really feel the initial report done by Penn State was quick. It wasn’t honest,” former Penn State linebacker Bruce Bannon said. “It was almost just reaction and the NCAA accepted it and the (board of trustees) accepted it and I think they were all totally wrong. Once again, they were being reactive.”

The NCAA sanctions, based on the conclusion that Penn State failed to “uphold institutional integrity” within its athletic program as stated in the NCAA’s consent decree with the university, infuriated former players.

“Prior to that suggestion the NCAA would’ve held Penn State up as a model of compliance and a model of what a football program should be like in line with the rest of the mission of the university,” Blackledge said, citing Penn State’s routinely high graduation rates of its student athletes.

All lettermen were advised of the impending release of the Paterno report in a letter emailed to them Friday by Sue Paterno.

“I was overjoyed,” Bannon said. “I thought it was wonderful.”

In the letter, Sue Paterno insists the Freeh report and resulting NCAA penalties “should not close the book on the Sandusky scandal.”

The resultant 238-page Paterno report relies on the analysis of four experts — Paterno family attorney Wick Sollers, former U.S. attorney general and Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh, former FBI profiler Jim Clemente and founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic Dr. Fred Berlin.

The findings of Clemente intrigued Burkhart, who is the president of the Texas chapter of the C5 Youth Foundation which works with “high-potential youth from risk-filled environments.” Bannon also noted Clemente’s report as a differing viewpoint, one not offered by Freeh’s investigators. In the Paterno report, Clemente’s analysis provided context for a lack of understanding the insidious nature of Sandusky’s crimes which made him hard to identify as a pedophile.

Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 counts of child sexual abuse in June. He is currently serving a minimum 30-60-year sentence.

“Now I think we have a report that is really honest and really more meaningful for the poor kids that had to suffer,” Bannon said. “It is what really happened. It’s the truth instead of this reaction that the board of Penn State and the NCAA accepted so quickly.”