Freeh report fallout is only beginning, at Penn State and elsewhere

The release of a report on the child sexual abuse scandal involving former Penn State football assistant Jerry Sandusky led to countless re-evaluations Thursday, most notably of Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions’ late coach. The report’s details — a timeline of who knew what, when they knew it, and what steps were and weren’t taken — shook all sorts of corners in college athletics, with plenty of room for introspection.

“I think when something like this happens, as shocking as it is, we’ve all got to take a minute to look upon how we can prevent it, how we would deal with any accusations that would come to light early on,” said Norwood Teague, the new athletic director at Minnesota who previously held the same job at Virginia Commonwealth.

That process will happen in different places at different paces. In a statement, the NCAA said it was too early to determine whether information in the report, compiled by investigators led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, could lead to sanctions against the athletic department. Penn State still must answer questions contained in a letter, sent by NCAA President Mark Emmert last November, regarding “compliance with institutional control and ethics policies,” according to the NCAA’s statement.

But even with the dramatic information the report revealed — including Paterno’s knowledge of an investigation into former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky’s improper behavior in 1998 — there may not be evidence that would cause future problems for Penn State’s athletic department.

“The information in there about child sexual assault, those aren’t currently NCAA rules violations,” said Michael L. Buckner, an attorney whose firm frequently represents schools in NCAA cases. “The Freeh report documented — generally, philosophically — a lack of control. But did it lack institutional control as defined in the NCAA manual?”

The fallout from Freeh’s report wasn’t contained just to Penn State, either. Officials for Nike, the official supplier of Penn State athletic equipment and apparel, announced they would rename the Joe Paterno Child Development Center on its Beaverton, Ore., campus. Nike founder Phil Knight, an emotional and staunch supporter who passionately defended Paterno at his memorial service, issued a statement Thursday that showed the impact of Freeh’s report.

“According to the investigation, it appears Joe made missteps that led to heartbreaking consequences,” Knight said. “I missed that Joe missed it, and I am extremely saddened on this day. My love for Joe and his family remains.”

The Sandusky case, and the lack of urgent response by a number of Penn State officials as outlined in Freeh’s report, has brought the question: How could this happen? But athletic department officials at several schools said Thursday they have long had procedures in place for reporting suspected crimes either involving athletic department staff or taking place on campus.

“We had policies and procedures and flow charts, and we were aware of all the necessary things we had to do legally even before the whole Penn State case,” said Tom O’Connor, the athletic director at George Mason. “It’s a priority with us. It’s always been a priority with us. Penn State didn’t trigger it, because we always felt we had the right policies in place.”

Just five weeks after a grand jury indicted Sandusky on 40 counts of sex crimes in November, the Maryland university system put into place a policy outlining exactly what university employees and students are to do if they suspect child abuse or neglect.

Through a spokesman, Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson declined to comment for this story — both in his capacity overseeing the Terrapins’ athletic department and in his role as the new president of the National Association of College Directors of Athletics. But the policy mandates that Maryland employees report suspected incidents of abuse both to the police or social services and to the school president’s office. Failure to do so can result in “discipline for professional misconduct, up to and including termination.”

Anderson’s predecessor at Maryland, Debbie Yow, said that in her final few years in College Park, all returning athletes were asked a question in an annual survey: “Has there been any inappropriate touching by an administrator or coach?” North Carolina State, where Yow is now the athletic director, includes the same question on its survey.

N.C. State and other schools conduct training before each academic year to make sure coaches and administrators are familiar with their responsibilities to report suspected crimes on campus under the Clery Act, a federal statute that requires colleges and universities to keep and disclose information about crime. Minnesota’s Teague said in most departments in which he has worked, “the most important speaker you have from the outside is campus police.”

The issues surrounding the Penn State situation remained incendiary even as the Freeh report landed. Officials at several schools — including Virginia, Virginia Tech and Maryland — either declined to comment or didn’t respond to messages Thursday. Some officials expressed a reluctance to review their own policies publicly lest they appear to be criticizing Penn State or Paterno, who died in January.

Paterno’s family issued a statement Thursday that said, in part: “It can be argued that Joe Paterno should have gone further. He should have pushed his superiors to see that they were doing their jobs. We accept this criticism.”

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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