The fate of the Penn State football program is on the line today as NCAA officials and university administrators weigh a scathing assessment of their university's single-minded obsession with the late Joe Paterno's football team.
The findings of the 267-page report by former FBI director Louis Freeh confirmed what many critics had alleged, that Paterno and his superiors valued the football program and the image of Penn State far more than they valued the safety of Jerry Sandusky's victims. Freeh said the university had a "culture of reverence" for the football team "ingrained at all levels of the campus community."
"The motivation [was] to avoid the consequences of bad publicity," Freeh said. "Bad publicity has consequences for the brand of Penn State University, the reputation of coaches, the ability to do fundraising. It's got huge implications."
Now, their actions could result in Penn State football fielding the most serious punishment available to it: the death penalty, or ending the program for season or longer.
The NCAA will begin its disciplinary process in earnest now that the independent investigation has been reported. Penn State's new president, Rodney Erickson, will be expected to respond to a set of allegations about how the university upheld NCAA rules during Sandusky's period of criminal activity, such rules as "ethical conduct" of coaches and "institutional control" by the school president.
"Like everyone else, we are reviewing the final report for the first time today," the NCAA said in a statement. " As President Emmert wrote in his November 17 letter to Penn State President Rodney Erickson and reiterated this week, the university has four key questions, concerning compliance with institutional control and ethics policies, to which it now needs to respond. Penn State's response to the letter will inform our next steps, including whether or not to take further action."
The aspect of "institutional control" will be particularly important to the NCAA, said former U.S. Congressman Charles Thomas McMillen, a former NBA player who introduced a bill focusing on college sports reforms to Congress in the 1990s.
"(The death penalty) certainly would be appropriate," McMillen said. "The lesson here is again that the governance of our universities, with respect to athletic departments, is weak and nonexistent in many places."
The association will likely hone in on what Freeh found to be a serious lack of oversight of the football program at the university. In his report, he said that "certain department monitored their own compliance issues," and that no one at the school monitored compliance with the federal Clery Act. The NCAA describes "institutional compliance" as the school's adherence to NCAA bylaws, which make no mention of the Clery Act or reporting crimes to the police.
It will also be up to the NCAA committee to decide whether the officials' behavior at Penn State qualified for ending the program, as the language of their bylaws leaves enough flexibility for NCAA officials to decide what constitutes "unethical behavior."
Only handed down five times in the NCAA's history, the so-called death penalty effectively dismantles the offending sports program for at least one academic year. They could also retroactively take away wins, reduce scholarships for student athletes, or ban the team from competing in bowl games, having their games televised, or recruiting.
McMillen said that Penn State's football program had grown too powerful, like many schools with star basketball or football teams, and that systemic change was necessary. That it would come from the scandal at Penn State, however, he doubted.
"The NCAA is only one piece of it. The larger problem is that no one is control. The almighty dollar is in control. College sports is being controlled by the dollar. No one is in charge. The NCAA has very a small purview, setting some regulations. You have conferences, television networks, so many folks with control that no one is in control. You can have one meltdown like Penn State and it still won't change the system," McMillen said.
Penn State's football team draws some $70 million to the university each year, funding other athletic departments and some academic programs.
Following the Freeh report, some supporters pointed out that if the football team were to be demolished - even for a year - there could be a ripple-effect of economic and academic consequences.
"First, all other sports die. All. Other. Sports. Because PSU football subsidizes the rest. All women's sports, particularly, go away," Penn State alumnus Jason Fagone wrote on Twitter Thursday. "It's not just the $40 million football economy that goes. It's academics. There's a tangible risk of decreased state appropriations; legislators go to football games, get free tix. That's 14% of total budget."
If the NCAA does not impose suspensions on the football team, Penn State would also have the option to impose its own suspension, much like Florida A&M University did this year after the hazing death of one of its famed Marching 100 band members.
In the months after drum major Robert Champion died, the band leader and the university president resigned, and the university suspended all band activity for the 2012-2013 school year. Champion's death, like Sandusky's crimes, led to revelations that the program had too much power and too little oversight.
The administration at Penn State hasn't spoken publicly about an internal suspension as an option. In a statement Thursday following the Freeh report's release, the Board of Trustees said it remained "proud of the accomplishments of Penn State's student athletes over many years, and we reaffirm the fundamental premise that academic excellence and athletic achievement are wholly consistent and complementary goals."
The university also gave new head football coach Bill O'Brien a five-year contract worth more than $950,000 each year, a move that seemed to confirm the administration's commitment to playing football for each of those five years.
McMillen said that whether or not Penn State or the NCAA suspend the Nittany Lions football team in 2012, the influence exerted by powerful college athletic departments will not go away.
"As sad as this is, as tragic as this, it will not lead to systemic reform and reason. It's going to take a major cataclysm, something involving many schools, a gambling incident or programs going bankrupt," he said. "It all has to do with this reverence of football, or basketbtall, that it becomes larger than the university, and it can't be, it just can't be. Higher education is too important in this country for the tail to be allowed to wag the dog."