The NCAA’s 444-page manual contains no language directly addressing appopriate punishment for concealing information regarding child sexual abuse. But in light of the shameful conduct of Penn State’s leadership, revealed Thursday in the Freeh report, the NCAA must use its authority to do what’s needed now: Shut down the Nittany Lions football program.

If the Freeh report released Thursday is accurate in its assessment of the university’s role in the worst scandal in college sports history, then the engine that enabled longtime child sexual predator Jerry Sandusky must be switched off, at least temporarily.

The good news is that the NCAA is at least examining what its role should be in this horrific mess.

The organization is awaiting Penn State’s response to a November letter sent by NCAA President Mark Emmert, in which Emmert requested answers to questions “concerning compliance with institutional control and ethics policies.” The key matter for the NCAA to determine is whether its authority to punish for “lack of institutional control” is as applicable to egregious criminal behavior as it is to providing extra benefits to teenagers.

If the NCAA expands the term’s traditional definition, it could severely punish the football program and athletic department. What happened at Penn State should be included under the umbrella.

The Freeh report, compiled by a team of investigators led by former FBI director Louis Freeh, is highly critical of coach Joe Paterno, university president Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and vice president Gary Schultz.

The four men, according to the report, failed to act despite having opportunities to confront Sandusky, Paterno’s longtime lead assistant, over 14 years. They displayed “total disregard” for the children being victimized by Sandusky, and Paterno — whom Freeh repeatedly portrayed as the group’s most powerful figure during a news conference Thursday — lied about what he knew, when he knew it and, according to e-mail correspondence, advised against a plan to report one of Sandusky’s crimes witnessed by an assistant coach.

Freeh determined the officials’ incomprehensibly poor decisions stemmed from, their desire to avoid negative publicity that could damage the school and the program. Penn State’s “culture of reverence for the football program” led its most senior leaders to put protecting the program ahead of protecting underprivileged boys, many of whom lacked father figures, from a child rapist.

The football-driven culture at Penn State is so warped that the school’s current leadership should act to obliterate it without a NCAA mandate. It has happened before.

Disgraced by its prominent men’s basketball team, the University of San Francisco canceled the program for three seasons in the early 1980s. The school was widely applauded for being the first to shut down an out-of-control program in a major sport.

Southern Methodist University missed an opportunity to join them. Throughout the 1980s, SMU football players were better compensated than many in the NFL. The NCAA shuttered the program during the 1987 and ’88 seasons, making it the only Bowl Subdivision team to get the so-called “death penalty.”

Because no NCAA bylaws have been violated in the Penn State matter, many of the school’s supporters argue the NCAA should stay out of it and let the criminal and civil courts hand down justice for the victims. That was Paterno’s point in a letter released jsut this week. “This is not a football scandal and should not be treated as one,” the coach contended.

The NCAA’s rulebook is heavy-handed. There are extensive guidelines prohibiting recruits from accepting so much as a T-shirt. The NCAA dictates how much contact coaches can have with players — and when such interaction is permitted. Major violations can lead to athletes losing eligibility and teams being banned from postseason competition.

In writing its rules, however, the NCAA could have no more anticipated the Penn State scenario than the framers of the U.S. Constitution could have envisioned freedom-of-speech issues related to the Internet. That’s why new laws are written.

Undoubtedly, the NCAA will discuss how to revise its manual to address the off-the-field atrocities Paterno and others ignored. But as Freeh correctly pointed out, many of Sandusky’s crimes occurred in the football team’s headquarters close to Paterno’s office. They were committed by a man who played a major role in helping Penn State become a national football power.

This is actually one of the biggest football issues the NCAA has ever faced.

Paterno is the most important figure in Penn State’s transformation from a regional agricultural school into a nationally recognized research institution. The football team’s emergence during his nearly 46 years at the helm drove fundraising efforts and provided the school’s identity. The program and the university’s image are linked.

With Sandusky jailed, Paterno gone and Penn State under new direction, some would suggest there’s nothing for the NCAA to gain by hitting Penn State with any Sandusky-related sanctions, let alone eliminating the football program for a period. That would hurt only the current coaching staff and players, they say.

But virtually all NCAA actions against institutions are handed down after the perpetrators have left town; the point is to deliver messages to be remembered. The fire that both fueled Penn State’s rise and ultimately led to destroying its image is still burning. It needs to be put out.

No one should have to be reminded that protecting children is more important than preserving an institution’s reputation. But if schools lose sight of that, as Penn State so clearly did, then the NCAA should throw the book at ’em.