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Porto: Lessons From Penn State

09/18/12 5:55PM By Brian Porto
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(Host) Commentator Brian Porto is Deputy Director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School. And even though the 2012 college football season is under way, he's still thinking about the lessons to be learned from last season's saddest sports story, the sexual abuse scandal at Penn State.

(Porto) By now, you probably know that the National Collegiate Athletic Association has penalized the football program at Pennsylvania State University severely because University officials failed to report child sexual abuse by a former assistant football coach.

The NCAA levied a $60 million dollar fine, thereby depriving Penn State of its annual gross income from football, banned the University from playing in a postseason bowl game for four years, reduced the number of football scholarships it could award during that time period, and vacated all of its football victories between 1998, when the sexual abuse by former coach Jerry Sandusky was first suspected, and 2011, when a grand jury indicted him. These penalties are the most severe the NCAA has imposed since 1987.

Their severity reflects the failure of leadership by Penn State's top officials, who did not report to proper authorities in 2001 Sandusky's sexual abuse of a young boy in a shower in the football building, even though a graduate assistant who witnessed the abuse had reported it to them. That failure not only allowed Sandusky to continue his abusive behavior for another decade, but also violated the NCAA's principle of "institutional control and responsibility," which holds member schools accountable for the actions of their athletic staff and anyone else "whose activities promote the athletic interests of the institution." That language includes Jerry Sandusky, who ran summer football camps for youngsters at Penn State.

Admittedly, the NCAA bypassed its usual investigative process in this case, but had it used that lengthy process, it would surely have been criticized for a slow response to a crisis. Besides, as the NCAA president noted, the penalties were based on an investigative report written by former FBI director Louis Freeh, at Penn State's request, and that report was more detailed than an NCAA investigation would have been.

That doesn't mean all the penalties were appropriate. The scholarship reductions, in particular, punish innocent Penn State players, who are likely to be outmanned, even humiliated, on the field for years to come because of those reductions. A better way to change Penn State's football-first culture, without disadvantaging innocent players, would have been to shorten the season, scheduling the first game in mid-September and the last one before Thanksgiving, like Dartmouth and the other Ivy League schools do.

Still, Penn State has accepted the penalties, so it's best now to focus on the future and use this tragedy to encourage discussion about the proper role of sports at colleges and universities. For now, I'm pleased that the NCAA acted quickly, decisively, and, for the most part, appropriately, and I hope that the Penn State episode has reminded us how excessive concern for an institution's athletic brand can blind even ordinarily responsible adults to unconscionable human behavior.
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