Nike’s Phil Knight reverses stance on Joe Paterno after family’s report is released


Sue Paterno, at her husband’s memorial service in January 2012. (Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

The Paterno family has gone on the offensive, releasing the findings of its investigation into the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal that rocked Penn State University and dispatching Jay Paterno to ESPN for interviews and Joe Paterno’s widow, Sue, to Katie Couric’s talk show.

And on Monday, Nike co-founder Phil Knight, defended the reputation of the late Penn State football coach, calling the findings in the investigative report compiled by Louis Freeh “unjustified and unsubstantiated.” The Freeh report, commissioned by Penn State trustees, was used to punish the football program and strip Joe Paterno’s program of victories and concluded that Paterno was part of a coverup of Sandusky’s crimes. He was convicted last summer on 45 counts of child sexual abuse.

Knight has done a 360 on the matter, first standing by Paterno with an eloquent eulogy in January 2012, then removing Paterno’s name from a day-care center on the Nike campus. When the Freeh report was issued, Knight said: “According to the investigation, it appears Joe made missteps that led to heartbreaking consequences. I missed that Joe missed it, and I’m extremely saddened on this day.”

Now he says he did not fully read the Freeh report and on Monday Knight ripped the NCAA, the day after former Pennsylvania attorney general Dick Thornburgh released a 238-report that said the Freeh investigation was filled with errors. Freeh, on Monday, called the Paterno report “self-serving.”

Knight’s statement today:

Last July I was surprised and saddened by the Freeh Report and the subsequent press conference held by the former FBI Director. In response to the shocking findings, which were so definitively and passionately presented, and based on the reputation of Louis Freeh, I issued a statement which said in part, “According to the investigation, it appears Joe made missteps that led to heartbreaking consequences. I missed that Joe missed it, and I am extremely saddened on this day.”

I made this statement without having read the report in full. When I later took the time to do so, I was surprised to learn that the alarming allegations, which so disturbed the nation, were essentially theories and assertions rather than solid charges backed by solid evidence. On reflection I may have unintentionally contributed to a rush to judgment.

With the release of the report by the King and Spalding law firm, including analysis by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former FBI profiler James Clemente, it is clear that the findings of the Freeh Report were unjustified and unsubstantiated. When this tragic story first unfolded Joe cautioned all of us to slow down and carefully gather the facts before jumping to conclusions. We owed it to the victims, he said, to get to the truth. It was counsel we all should have followed. Additionally, The NCAA’s actions are exposed as totally unwarranted. The NCAA acted outside its charter and rendered judgment absent any kind of investigation or judicial hearing. It was simply grandstanding.

And while some may still debate the who, what, when, where, why of this sad case, the clear villain, as Jim Clemente notes, is Jerry Sandusky himself.

There’s no disputing that Sandusky is the villian here, but there’s also no question that the blame doesn’t end there. The question is whether any of it extends to the man who ran the football program for decades. ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski states the matter as clearly as anyone:

Paterno wasn’t just a coach; he was a potential Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate in the mid-1970s and was on the GOP’s wish list to replace U.S. Sen. John Heinz in the early 1990s. He gave one of the seconding speeches for George H.W. Bush at the 1988 Republican National Convention. Paterno was a man of stature, power and influence.

In the end, he was also a man who did the absolute minimum when it came to the Sandusky scandal. Paterno should have shone a Klieg light on the situation. Instead, he held up a single matchstick and then quickly blew it out.

In that 1988 seconding speech, Paterno dared anyone to criticize the nominee, then-Vice President Bush.

“I’ll be damned if I’ll sit still while people who can’t carry George Bush’s shoes ridicule him,” thundered Paterno that day at the Superdome in New Orleans.

That’s what this Paterno family report is all about. It is about not sitting still while the legacy of JoePa is compromised. It is about carrying Paterno’s shoes through the muddy waters.

It is also too little and too late.

Follow @CindyBoren on Twitter and on Facebook.

After spending most of her career in traditional print sports journalism, Cindy began blogging and tweeting, first as NFL/Redskins editor, and, since August 2010, at The Early Lead. She also is the social media editor for Sports.

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Cindy Boren · February 11, 2013

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